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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Displaced Camera
Ellen Auerbach
Classic Works and Collaborations
Photo by Ellen Auerbach . Source: robertmann.com
Ellen Auerbach, "Lily Woman, Oaxaca, Mexico," 1956

Ellen Auerbach grabs attention even before the beauty sets in. It may well take her photography’s beauty to overcome the shock. At Robert Mann through August 14, they also share a sense of place.

Views from a porch deck in Maine in 1941, and of walking a dog at Big Sur in 1950, have an intoxicating stillness—the stillness of boats at rest without visible need for mooring and of a long journey with nowhere to go. In places to which people travel to relax, they describe breaks even from leisure. They are gorgeous to the point of sentimental, their backgrounds disappearing into mist. Yet a wooden seagull might be about to take off, and the dog walker might end up swallowed whole by oversized rain gear and the rocky woods.

Auerbach was always on edge, always on the move, and always at home. A Jew, she came to America with her husband to escape the Nazis, and kept moving. Of course, plenty of photographers (Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Matthew Jensen) have crossed America to document its landscape, its people and their inner restlessness. Yet none of them has her affinity with Surrealism even in portraiture. Her subjects look within, without forgetting where they once belonged.

Photo by Ellen Auerbach . Source: robertmann.com
Ellen Auerbach, "Petrole Hahn" 1931

If Auerbach is known at all, it is mostly for her Berlin photographs and commercial photomontages from the early 1930s with Grete Stern, as ringl + pit, after their childhood nicknames. They already focus on private lives and public wit, in advertising as well as portraiture. People have an inner life, behind veils and eyelids, but in front of their shadows. The photographers themselves have one, in a double self-portrait with eyes wide open, simply by looking past one another. Yet the photos, like the times, have a way of disturbing lives. In one ad, a doll's head takes over from a model, who holds up a liquor bottle small enough that she could down it in one gulp.

Photo by Ellen Auerbach and Eliot Porter . Source: robertmann.com
Ellen Auerbach and Eliot Porter, "Oaxaca, Saint W. Dusk, San Felipe" 1956

MoMA's joint survey of Stern and Horacio Coppola, through October 4, tosses Auerbach aside like a casualty of art and war—in pursuit of a marriage and a meeting of the minds between the Bauhaus and Buenos Aires. One would never know that she kept going, not just with a career, but also to the Americas. She later worked in Chile, Argentina, and Mallorca as well as Palestine, London, and the United States, culminating in studies of Mexican churches alongside Eliot Porter in 1955. The museum and gallery shows overlap, and it takes a checklist to know where collaborations begin and end. She met other exiles as well. Photos show Bertolt Brecht at work, with a hazy typewriter and a mean cigar, and Willem de Kooning in his studio, with his evident charm and self-possession.

Photo by Ellen Auerbach . Source: robertmann.com
Ellen Auerbach, "Willem de Kooning" 1944

Not everyone is so lucky, but no one entirely gives in. Slum dwellers on a New York stoop have a mean stare. A ballerina on a city roof leaps high into the air. A woman in Mexico, on her back and clutching lilies, might be a corpse—but her lidded eyes, like the flowers, have come newly alive. A photo of the Statue of Liberty falls prey to a junk shop, and cormorants settle into a tree in Maine, but Liberty and the tree have the last word. In each case, the scene sets them apart from ordinary life while documenting where they belong.

They share Auerbach's characteristic calm and disturbance, like a nude seen from behind—head in a towel and hands in a sulfur bath, the tub badly stained by sulfur. They also continue the theme of doubling, going back to ringl + pit as not so identical twins. Two thick, gnarly trees greet one another like friends, and so do wooden saints in a Mexico church. One raises his hand as if to make a point in conversation. The doubling is both unsettling and reassuring.

The show ends with that sharp turn to color in Mexico, but she died only some fifty years later in New York, at age ninety-eight.

Ellen Auerbach
Classic Works and Collaborations

Robert Mann Gallery
525 W 26th St. 2nd Fl
Chelsea         Map

212 989 76000

Thursday, May 28 to
Friday, August 14, 2015
Hours: Tues-Fri, 10 to 6, Sat 11 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat