Ellen Auerbach, Portrait of Grete Stern (Ringl with Glasses), 1929
Grete Stern (1904-1999) was born in Wuppertal. Her German-jewish family was involved in the textile business. From 1923 to 1925 she studied graphic design at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Stuttgart, but - after seeing an exhibition of Edward Weston and Paul Outerbridge - she was inspired to study photography. In 1927 Stern moved to Berlin where she met photographer Umbo (Otto Umbehr) who in turn sent her to take private lessons with Walter Peterhans, a photographer well known for his meticulously produced still lives.
Grete Stern, Ellen & Walter Auerbach, c.1930
In 1928 Peterhans also accepted Ellen Auerbach (Pit) as a student. Stern and Auerbach began a profound friendship that lasted throughout their lifetime. Using the proceeds from an inheritance Stern and Auerbach started a photography studio for advertising, fashion and portrait photography. They thought that calling it “Rosenberg (Ellen’s birth name) and Stern” sounded too much “like a Jewish clothes manufacturer” so they called it ringl+pit, after their childhood nicknames (Ringl for Grete, Pit for Ellen). They decided to sign all their work together. In the early 1930s modern advertising was at its beginning and left ample room for ringl+pit's creative exploration.
ringl+pit, The Corset, 1929
In 1930 Stern followed Peterhans to Dessau to continue her studies at the Bauhaus until March 1933. There she met an Argentine photographer, Horacio Coppola. In 1933 the Bauhaus closed its doors, hounded by the Nazis. Although not an activist, Grete was sympathetic to leftist movements. With antisemitism becoming more and more aggressive, in early 1934 Stern emigrated to London. She opened a photographic and advertisement studio and also continued her work on portraits, photographing her friends from the community of German exiles, including Bertolt Brecht, Helene Weigel and Karl Korsch. Ellen Auerbach had also to leave Germany and after a brief stay in Palestine joined Stern in London.
Grete Stern, The Dancer Margareta Guerrero, Argentina 1945
Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola were married in 1935 and traveled to Argentina, Coppola’s native country, where she lived the rest of her life. Two months after arriving in Argentina, Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola presented what the magazine Sur called “the first serious exhibition of photographic art in Buenos Aires”. Between 1937 and 1941 Stern and Coppola operated a photography and advertising studio in Buenos Aires. In 1940 they moved to a Modernist house built in the outskirts of the city which became a meeting place for young artists and writers, both Argentine and Jewish and political exiles from Europe.
Grete Stern, Dream No. 38, 1949
In 1948 Stern was offered the unusual assignment of providing photos for a column on the interpretation of dreams in the popular women’s magazine Idilio. The column, entitled “Psychoanalysis Will Help You,” was a response to dreams sent in by readers, mostly working-class women. It was written by renowned sociologist Gino Germani, who later became a professor at Harvard University. The result was a series of about one hundred and fifty photomontages that show Stern’s avant-garde spirit. In these photomontages she portrays women’s oppression and submission in Argentine society with sarcastic and surreal images.
Grete Stern, Indios in the Chaco, Argentina 1964
In 1964 Grete Stern traveled through the northeast of Argentina, producing more than eight hundred photos portraying the lives of the aboriginals of the region. It constitutes the most important photo archive on this subject in Argentina. The suicide of her son Andres in 1965 was a profound shock. Her mother had also taken her life, and Grete herself often suffered from depression. In 1972 Stern traveled to the United States, England, France and Israel and for the first time since leaving in 1933 she Germany. In 1975 the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin organized the first photographic exhibition after the war, which included Stern’s work. In 1979 Gert Sander, August Sander’s grandson, began representing the ringl+pit work.
Nils Fonstad, Ellen Auerbach and Grete Stern in New York, 1992
Grete Stern continued her studio work doing portraits and landscapes until 1980, when she stopped due to failing eyesight. “Photography has given me great happiness. I learned a lot and was able to say things I wanted to say and show,” said Stern in 1992. Grete Stern died in Buenos Aires on December 24, 1999 at the age of ninety-five. You can see more photos by Grete Stern here. A documentary ''Ringl and Pit,'' completed in 1995 by Juan Mandelbaum, has been quietly attracting attention and praise, largely through an international network of screenings in museums and festivals. You can order the DVD here.