Art

A Photographer Who Tracked Displacement, from Soviet Gulags to Ethiopia’s Civil War

Ruth Gruber
Unidentified photographer, “Ruth Gruber, Alaska” (1941–43) (all images courtesy International Center of Photography unless indicated otherwise)

Ruth Gruber was the youngest PhD graduate in the world, earning her degree at the age of 20 with a doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf (the first academic work on the author), when she trudged out into the Arctic and became the first journalist to interview prisoners at a Soviet Gulag in 1935. Born in 1911 in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrants, she was a long way from home, but it was just the beginning of an international journey that would take her from remote corners of pre-statehood Alaska to the harrowing postwar internment camps of Europe. Now 104 years old, she’s had one of the most intrepid photography careers of the 20th century, and that legacy is being celebrated in Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist at Brooklyn College Library.

The exhibition, installed humbly with small prints and cases of ephemera alongside computer stations at the Flatbush college, is a traveling show from the International Center of Photography (ICP), which honored her with the Cornell Capa Award at the 2011 ICP Infinity Awards. After it closes on February 15, Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist will open March 13 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in Portland. It’s a chronological retrospective of her career, curated by Maya Benton with material from Gruber’s personal archive, featuring previously unseen prints. These include color photographs from the Alaskan Territory, where she traveled from 1941 to 1943 as an official US Field Representative. She was tasked with documenting the resources of the territory, and its conditions of life, for material to show the US public when Alaska became the 49th state in 1959. She also trained her eye on the territory’s indigenous culture, particularly the daily lives of the women, such as a Yupik mother with delicate tattoos on her face and hands holding a baby on her shoulders, and two young girls waiting on a US Indian Service bus, their Western clothing contrasting sharply with their elder’s garb.

Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Woman with tattooed face and hands, a form of body ornamentation among the Yupik peoples of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska Territory” (1941–43) (© Ruth Gruber)
Installation view of 'Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist' at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist’ at Brooklyn College Library, with a photograph of three women in a Sitka, Alaska, jail (1941–43) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Students waiting on a US Indian Service school bus, Ward Cove, Alaska Territory” (1941–43) (© Ruth Gruber)

With the war in Europe, Gruber’s focus would shift to the plight of conflict refugees, spurred by her role in stewarding the Henry Gibbons ship on a covert 1944 mission to transport 1,000 Jewish refugees to the US from Europe. As she later stated, “[l]istening to their stories of survival, I had an epiphany. I realized that for the rest of my life I would use my tools — my words and images — to fight injustice.”

Postwar, she continued to photograph images others overlooked, such as the August 1947 voyage of the Runnymeade Park, one of the ships that Jewish refugees, most of them Holocaust survivors, were transferred into following the attempt of the SS Exodus to sail to British-controlled Palestine. There she took some of her most famous photographs of the overcrowding in the miserable heat, and the deplorable sanitary conditions. As she later wrote: “‘Take pictures!’ the people cry out. ‘Take pictures. Show our floating Auschwitz to the world.’ I take pictures blindly.” Soon the images were circulating through the New York Herald Tribune office.

In the decades since World War II, she kept traveling across continents, photographing migrants and refugees in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iraq, Romania, Morocco, Tunisia, and wherever people were displaced and ignored. In a 1947 image of a Cyprus Interment Camp, a father gently rests his baby in a cradle carefully made from scavenged rags and wood; in a 1985 image Ethiopian Jews quietly wait, rifles at the ready due to the threat of civil war attacks. Gruber was self-taught, but her photographs reveal a sensitive eye to the plight of marginalized people around the world, finding the humanity in even the most harrowing moments.

Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “A proud father putting his baby to sleep in a bassinet he constructed from gathered rags and pieces of wood, Cyprus Internment Camp” (1947) (© Ruth Gruber)
Installation view of 'Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist' at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist’ at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist' at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist’ at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Ethiopian Jews, seeking refuge in the synagogue, were given rifles to protect the village from guerrillas and bandits during the civil war, Ambober, Ethiopia” (1985) (© Ruth Gruber)
Installation view of 'Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist' at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist’ at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Eskimo boy standing next to fish drying on racks in the sunshine, Bethel, Alaska Territory” (1941–43) (© Ruth Gruber)
Installation view of 'Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist' at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist’ at Brooklyn College Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Eklutna woman reading Life Magazine, Hooper Bay, Alaska” (1941–43) (© Ruth Gruber)
Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Refugee families await forced deportation and transfer to prison ships, including Runnymede Park, Haifa Port, Palestine” (July 18, 1947) (© Ruth Gruber)
Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Native Yakuts celebrating Aviation Day, a national holiday, in the Park of Culture and Rest, which is decorated with airplanes, parachutes, and pictures of famed aviators and leaders, Yakutsk, capital of Yakutia Republic” (1935–36) (© Ruth Gruber)
Ruth Gruber
Ruth Gruber, “Romanian families reunite in Haifa Port, Israel. Many had not seen each other since the beginning of World War II” (1951) (© Ruth Gruber)

Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist continues through February 15 at Brooklyn College Library (2900 Bedford Avenue, Flatbush, Brooklyn). It then shows at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (1953 NW Kearney Street, Portland, Oregon) from March 13 to June 13. 

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