Grete Stern, “Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar (Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home)” (1949) (image via

There are many reasons to go see Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, curated by Mia Fineman, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yves Klein leaps into the void and Lyndon Johnson’s nose grows long and pointed (would that this would happen to all politicians who lie to their constituents!). Fineman presents the work in thematic groups, such as “Politics and Persuasion” and “Novelties and Amusements.

I went to see the photomontages of Grete Stern (1904–1999), which Fineman grouped under the rubric “Mind’s Eye.” I found one of her photomontages — there were two in the exhibition — on the same wall as Frederick Sommer’s iconic “Max Ernst” (1946), Clarence John Laughlin’s “The Masks Grow to Us” (1947) and William Mortensen’s “Human Relations” (1932). Stern’s photomontage “Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar (Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home)” (1949) didn’t disappoint me. “Sueño No. 44: La acusada (Dream No. 44: The Accused)”  (1948) is out in the hallway. I suspect Fineman separated Stern’s photomontages because together they would have overwhelmed and subverted what was around them.

Before discussing Stern’s work, I want to say something about William Mortensen (1897–1965), who was both a photographer and the author of numerous manuals and books, including Madonnas and Monsters (1936). Born nearly a decade before Sommer and Laughlin, and working at the same time as Edward Steichen (1879 –1973) and Alfred Steiglitz (1864–1946), Mortensen championed photographic manipulation over straight photography, and paid for it dearly.

Ansel Adams (1902–1984) dubbed Mortensen “the Anti-Christ,” which tells you how much he was reviled and feared by “straight” photographers. In the ensuing argument between Mortensen and the purists, straight photography won out. In his seminal study, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1937), Beaumont Newhall left Mortensen out altogether. Now that Photoshop has become ubiquitous, perhaps Mortensen’s fortune will change.

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Stern, who lived most of her life in Argentina, is more obscure than Mortensen. I believe that “Los Sueños,” a group of forty-six photomontages of the nearly one hundred and fifty that she made for a women’s newsstand magazine, Idilio, between 1948 and 1950 has never been shown in its entirety outside of Argentina and Spain.

Grete Stern, who was Jewish, was born in Elberfeld, Germany, in 1904. Fiercely independent, she went against her parents’ wishes and studied graphic design and photography in Stuttgart. After seeing an exhibition of photographs by Edward Weston and Paul Outerbridge, she decided to study photography further and moved to Berlin in 1927 to live with her brother Walter, a film editor. Through him she met the radical, self-taught Umbo (Otto Umbehr), who suggested that Stern study privately with Walter Peterhans, who later taught at the Bauhaus School in Dessau.

Grete Stern, “Dream No. 18, Café Concert” (1948) (all images via unless otherwise noted)

It is through Peterhans that Stern met another student, Ellen Auerbach (1906–2004). In 1929, when Peterhans moved from Berlin to Dessau to begin teaching, Stern and Auerbach bought his equipment and opened their own commercial photography studio, Ringl & Pit, which was named after their childhood nicknames in order to hide the fact that they were Jewish. The two women designed advertisements, took portraits, and experimented with the medium. Working in a field dominated by men, they were pioneers, and their work has been the subject of a traveling exhibition that opened at the Museum Folkwang (October 10, 1993–November 28, 1993), as well as a film, Ringl and Pit (1995), produced and directed Juan Mandelbaum.

In 1935, Stern and her new husband, Horacio Coppola (1906–2012), a photography student from Argentina, moved to Buenos Aires, escaping the Nazis. Shortly after they arrived, they mounted the first exhibition of modernist photography in Argentina. From 1937 until 1941, Stern and Coppola ran a studio together. In 1943, she and Coppola got divorced, but she stayed in Argentina, ostensibly to raise their son and daughter, and became a citizen in 1958.

(According to Coppola’s obituary in the New York Times [June 18, 2012], the Museum of Modern Art, New York is planning an exhibition of Coppola’s and Stern’s work in 2015.)

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Stern wasn’t a purist by any means. She recognized that photography was a flexible and open-ended medium, and made no attempt to close off possibilities.  She did advertising set-ups, portraits, still-lifes, cityscapes, nature studies, and documented the indigenous people living in the north of Argentina. As much as I have been able to learn about her work, I feel like I have only scratched the surface.

Grete Stern, “Dream No. 28, Love without Illusion” (ca. 1951)

In 1948, one year after women’s suffrage passed in Argentina, largely because of Eva Perón, Idilio, a popular weekly women’s magazine, offered Stern an extraordinary assignment. She was to make a photomontage for the column, “Psychoanalysis Will Help You,” which responded to the dreams sent in by mostly working class women. Writing under the pseudonym Richard Rest, Gino Germani, who later became a professor at Harvard University, analyzed one dream per column. Stern’s photomontage — her illustration of the dream under discussion — was integral to the column.

According to most authorities, Stern made around one hundred-and-fifty photomontages for Idilio, but only forty-six survive, which were the ones she photographed before turning the original in to the magazine. Despite working within certain strict conventions required by the magazine, Stern managed to find ways to introduce an erotic component, to criticize women’s status in a male-dominated society, and to be humorous to the point of sarcasm.

At the same time, Stern neither descends into kitsch nor becomes simplistic in her narrative evocations. In “Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar (Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home)” (1949), a kneeling woman with her hands above her head is the base of a lamp. The large hand of an unseen man has just pushed the button, turning the lamp on. In “Sueño No. 44: La acusada (Dream No. 44: The Accused)”  (1948), pieces of furniture chase a woman down a street. Three men and a woman, who points an accusing finger, look on.

Grete Stern, “Sueño No. 16: Sirena de Mar (Dream No. 16: Mermaid)” (1950)

In “Sueño No. 16: Sirena de Mar (Dream No. 16: Mermaid)” 1950 — which unfortunately is not in the show — a man’s arms reach out of the rolling sea until his hands are just above a prone woman’s buttocks (little else of her is visible). Are the hands about to massage or spank her? The scenes Stern evokes in her photomontages might strike the viewer as familiar, and even archetypal, but they never become transparent.

Without the slightest hint of didacticism or anger, and often with a good deal of humor, Stern developed a language for women’s dreams. She was able to use this language to critique the power relationship between men and women.  This critique, which comes across as a compressed expression of immense sympathy for the plight of working class women, is an astonishing achievement. For all of its ties to Surrealism, Stern has shifted away from the male gaze to the female gaze — specifically women’s anxieties, apprehensions and fears, as they have manifested themselves in dreams that were disturbing enough to write a stranger about. There is no other body of work like this.

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 27, 2013.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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