The Remarkable World of Grete Stern

By Latria Graham

Grete Stern always identified as an artist. From the time she was a small child, her mother enjoyed showing Grete’s talents to friends. Born on May 9, 1904 in Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Germany, she became a skilled musician, playing piano and guitar. When it was time to go off for an education, Stern attended Kunstgewerbeschule (Am Weissenhof) in Stuttgart, studying graphic design under Ernst Schneidler. In 1926, she began working as a freelance graphic design and advertising artist in her hometown of Wuppertal. (Her early work demonstrates some of the collage work she would later refine as a photographer.) In DLH from 1925, a woman in a red hat stares upward at a plane soaring perilously close to her face—the proximity and scale is an illusion but created so seamlessly that this encounter between ordinary things seems surreal.

A serendipitous encounter with a new art form would change the direction of Stern’s life. “One day, I saw an exposition of photographs,” Stern recalled in the 1995 documentary Ringl and Pit by Juan Mandelbaum. “I had never thought about [photography], you see. It was Outerbridge and Weston.” Paul Outerbridge and Edward Weston’s work in the mode of photography showed her the shortcomings of her graphic design work: “I was always interested in being able to design faces. What I could do didn’t satisfy myself. When I saw those pictures, I knew at once that I wanted to learn that. So I left my mother and went to Berlin.” It was 1927. A small inheritance allowed Stern to give up her job, acquire a small apartment, purchase a Linhof camera and pay for private lessons with Walter Peterhans, famed German photographer and teacher at the Bauhaus…

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