In 1929, in the midst of the artistic and political ferment that was Weimar Berlin, the young photographers Ellen Auerbach and Grete Stern formalized their personal and creative affinities to create Studio ringl + pit. Their collaboration, which would continue for the next four years, produced groundbreaking portraits, still lifes, and a handful of print advertisements that were celebrated for their inventively formal daring. In line with their training with Bauhaus photography master Walter Peterhans, ringl + pit's pictures were meticulously constructed and technically perfect, but they were also uniquely imprinted with the artists' characteristic blend of the playful, the strange, and, in multiple senses of the word, the queer. In this essay, Auerbach and Stern's adventurous approach to photographic experimentation is explored within the context of their correspondingly adventurous inclination to defy bourgeois conventions in their personal lives. In concert with the aesthetic synchrony that inspired their creative collaboration (such that, for its duration, they disavowed individual authorship in favor of the collective moniker “ringl + pit”) they were also lovers, a fact which, until now, has not been integrated into scholarly engagement with their work. Passionate photographic explorations, their work consistently privileged play, discovery, and intimacy over such conventional markers of success as money or fame. In this light, ringl + pit's audaciously anticipatory collective body of work might be said to adhere to the delineations of what Jack Halberstam has described as a “queer art of failure.”
This essay first began as a 2014 invited talk for the “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola” symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I am grateful to Roxana Marcoci, Sarah Hermanson Meister, and Drew Sawyer for the invitation to participate in this wonderful event, and to Juan Mandelbaum, who generously shared transcripts of unpublished interviews with Ellen Auerbach, Grete Stern, and Horacio Coppola with me. My thanks also go to Daniel Magilow, Jonathan Smit, Jordan Troeller, and again Roxana Marcoci for their feedback on earlier versions of this essay. Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own.