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Ruth Jacobi

  • Ruth Jacobi was a German-speaking, Polish-born photographer who emigrated in 1935 to New York, where she opened a studio together with her sister Lotte Jacobi. She later had her own portrait studio.
  • Given name:
  • Last name:
  • Alternative names:

    Ruth Richter, Ruth Jacobi-Roth

  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Poznań (PL)
  • Date of Death:
  • Place of Death:
    California (US)
  • Profession:
  • Introduction:

    Ruth Jacobi was a German-speaking, Polish-born photographer who emigrated in 1935 to New York, where she opened a studio together with her sister Lotte Jacobi. She later had her own portrait studio.

    Word Count: 31

  • Signature Image:
    Lotte Jacobi, Ruth Jacobi mit Brille, c. 1935, New York (© 2021. University of New Hampshire).
  • Content:

    Before emigrating, Ruth Jacobi worked at her family's photo studio in Berlin, which had been running for four generations. Between 1920 and 1922 she received a professional education in photography at the Photografische Lehranstalt des Lette Vereins, a progressive Berlin establishment given to the advancement of women, and the only place, apart from the Bayerische Lehranstalt für Lichtbildwesen in Munich, where women could study photography. Lessons included portrait photography and technical photography, as well as how to take portraits at different times of day, landscape and architectural photography, colour photography, reproductions and ink or overpainting.

    In 2004, 400 of Ruth Jacobi's photographs were donated to the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin. The estate was in the possession of a sister-in-law of Ruth Jacobi in Massachusetts (exh. cat. Ruth Jacobi, 2008). In spite of this donation, her photographs are still rarely found in either public or private collections. Unlike her sister Lotte Jacobi, who has been the subject of research, Ruth Jacobi continues to be understudied, although her images were published in a number of magazines during her time.
    One source of information is her memoir "Thorn", which contains fragmentary and disorganised descriptions of her life. It can be assumed that the memoir was written in the 1970s. She submitted a version of the memoir, with accounts of her life ending in 1922, to the Leo Baeck Institute in 1987. Another version, in which her accounts extend to 1939 is archived at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

    Ruth Jacobi saw herself as a progressive and avantgarde photographer. In "Thorn", she describes the conflicts in her parents' studio between the old, traditional methods of portrait photography and the newer approach of the 1920s. “Ende des Jahres 1922 fing ich an ernsthaft im Atelier meines Vaters zu arbeiten. […] Jede Aufnahme die machte wurde ein Ereignis fuer mich. Es schien mir – als wuerde ich jetzt erst anfangen zu sehen. Ich sah Alles in einem neuen Licht. […] Mia [R.J’s mother, HR] erkannte das Neue in meiner Photographie: die junge – die neue Generation. Vater – Meister Jacobi war kritisch. Ihm gefielen meine Portraits gar nicht: 'die grossen Koepfe – wo jeder Zug in de Gesichtern entbloesst war'. Dazu kam noch – dass ich gegen – Retuschieren war. Tortzdem ueberliess er mir das Photographieren mehr und mehr.” (Jacobi 1970 ) She also writes about how she got involved with the Berlin intelligentsia, whose members came to the studio to commission portraits, how she put on her first small exhibitions in the shop window of her studio and succeeded in publishing her images in magazines.

    The end of the 1920s marked a new stage in her life. Together with her husband Hans Richter, whom she married in 1926, she decided to emigrate to New York in 1928. In the metropolis she searched in vain for employment as a photographer, but was able to find only freelance jobs. Shortly after her arrival in New York, she made a series of pictures of poor Jewish street vendors and life on the Lower East Side. Her sensitive, humanistic images, taken with a Leica, capture unguarded moments amidst the hustle and bustle of the streets and made Ruth Jacobi an important figure in social photography. During her lifetime only few images of this series were published. In 1931, they were used for the cover and the book design, designed by John Heartfield, of the German edition of Michael Gold's autobiography, Juden ohne Geld (Jews without Money), in which he describes his childhood on the Lower East Side in New York City, at the time a poor area populated by emigrated East European Jews.

    In addition to this social approach to New York, Ruth Jacobi, like many of her émigré colleagues, also focused on the city's skyscrapers, using tightly cropped and upward tilted perspectives. Her aim was to experience the metropolitan architecture through her camera. In 1932, four images of her street scenes, signed with “Jacobi, Berlin”, were published in New York, a photobook and essay collection by the Austrian émigré Ann Tizian Leitich. This publication of her images puts her on an equal footing with the book's internationally renowned photographic contributors. Among them were Edwing Galloway and Emil Otto Hoppé. Agencies that contributed included Presse-Photo, Berlin and Mauritus (a photo agency which was found by Ernest Mayer, who later was co-founder of Black Star Agency in New York). The book's images chimed well with the huge interest in New York that existed in 1930s Europe.

    As her marriage with Hans Richter did not go well, Ruth Jacobi returned at the end of the 1930s to Berlin, where she went back to work at the family photo studio alongside her sister Lotte Jacobi. But only two years later, with the boycott of Jewish businesses imposed on 1 April, 1933, the situation rapidly deteriorated and the family made efforts to publish under pseudonyms like "folkwang-archiv", "Behm's Bilderdients" and "Bender-Jacobi”. In 1933, Lotte Jacobi resumed a previous relationship with her first love, Zsolt Roth, and their marriage in Budapest and a joint trip to Hungary followed.

    As the situation in Europe under the National Socialists continued to get worse, Ruth and Zsolt Jacobi-Roth emigrated in 1935 via Le Havre to New York. A few months later in 1935, her sister Lotte Jacobi arrived in New York and in 1936 her mother Mia Jacobi (1872–1950) and the son of Lotte Jacobi, Joachim Jacobi (1917–1985; who Americanised his name into John Hunter) followed. That same year the two sisters opened a studio together on 1393 Six Avenue 57th Street, which they ran until 1936, when they each opened studios of their own. Ruth Jacobi’s studio was located on the corner of Madison Avenue and East 58th Street, only one street west of the old studio and close to a number of other galleries such as the Julien Levy Gallery and the Matisse Gallery, where she also held classes as well as to Lotte Jacobi's studio. Towards the end of the 1930s, since the studio was not profitable and the rent was high, she gave up her studio to support her husband in his medical practice. It was located on the first floor of their house in Astoria (Queens), where they lived on the second floor. Images of Astoria, taken by her émigré colleague Rudy Burckhardt, show that Astoria was not as densely populated as Manhattan during the time, but enjoyed rich cultural diversity, including German emigrants and Jews.

    Only very few images have survived from Ruth Jacobi's "second" time in New York, but the considerable number of photographs that appeared in magazines as Popular Photography and U.S. Camera show that she achieved success and built something of a reputation in the 1930s and 1940s. A photograph of dolls was published in the December 1937 issue of Popular Photography and was followed by an image of twin sisters in February 1938. The latter was described thus: “The charming photograph of the twin sisters by Ruth Jacobi-Roth is a candid shot taken without their knowledge and consequently not posed.” (Anonymous 1938, 68) In March 1938, her picture of grapes was highly praised and selected as “Picture of the Month”: “The study of the grapes by Ruth Jacobi-Roth possesses a naturalness and quality that can be obtained only by one who has mastered photographic technique and lightning. This ordinary subject, in the hands of an artist, has been made into a still-life of luscious beauty.” (Anonymous 1938, 42) In the same issue was printed another image of rag dolls, sharing a double-page spread with the émigré photographer Walter Sanders and Philippe Halsmann. In the March issue of 1939, for the "Salon Section 1-2-3”, a montage of three pelicans was published, featuring a single image of a pelican taken by Jacobi at the Berlin Zoo using a 9x12 reflex type camera. Popular Photography was an important magazine for émigré photographers, who were able to publish both their images from their previous times in Europe as well as newer photographs from their exile in New York. Among the émigré photographers published were Lucien Aigner, Ruth Bernhard, Erwin Blumenfeld, Josef Breitenbach, Alexey Brodovitch, Rudy Burckhardt, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Andreas Feininger, Philippe Halsman, Fritz Henle, Lilly Joss, Clemens Kalischer, George Karger, André Kértész, Hermann Landshoff, Lisa Larsen, Herbert Matter, Hansel Mieth, Lisette Model, Martin Munkacsi, Fritz Neugass, Walter Sanders, Kurt Safranski, Xanti Schawinsky, Rolf Tietgens, Werner Wolff, Roman Vishniac and Ylla.

    In 1940, a portrait study of a sleeping girl by Ruth Jacobi was published in U.S. Camera. It appeared in the edition to mark the 100th anniversary of the magazine and was selected by the photographer and editor Edward Steichen (who became in 1947 curator of the photographic department at the Museum of Modern Art). At this time, when she was already working less as a professional photographer, she was presented on equal footing with her sister Lotte Jacobi.
    During the 1940s Ruth Jacobi also produced experimental photographs and photograms and took painting lessons with Zoltan Hecht und Hans Hofmann. In the 1970s she returned to photography, doing experimental work and nature studies and also taught at the Jewish Institution of the Educational Alliance.

    Ruth Jacobi’s photographic estate from her time in Germany is almost completely lost. The photographs that have survived consist of portraits, still lifes, nature and plant photographs, and travel photography. Often these are undated and without names, which makes it difficult to assign them and does not reveal exactly which photographs were taken in exile in New York. The series of photographs taken in 1928 in New York are fortunately assignable and consist of a series taken on the Lower East Side and city views. The photographs of the skyscrapers, window washers or park entertainments show very clearly Ruth Jacobi’s experimentation with the camera in the urban space and reflects the photographic modernistic style of the 1920s. These aesthetics can also be recognised in her portraits, which are often in close-up, in profile and cropped, also demonstrating the principles of the “New Woman”. Through her work at the portrait studio she mastered the art of lighting which she applied to her still lifes such as the grapes. Two of her cameras, a Leica and a Rolleiflex, are stored in the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin.

    Word Count: 1678

  • Media:
    Lotte Jacobi, Ruth Jacobi, c. 1935, New York (© 2021. University of New Hampshire).
    A Study in Doll Heads by Ruth Jacobi-Roth published in "Salon Section. Four Of A Kind." Popular Photography, December 1937, p. 48 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Sisters by Ruth Jacobi-Roth for the "Salon Section. Twins." Popular Photography, February 1938, pp. 46–47 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Ruth Jacobi-Roth, Grapes, published in the “Picture of the Months” section of Popular Photography, March 1938, p. 42 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Ruth Jacobi-Roth, Doll, published in "Salon Section." Popular Photography, March 1938, p. 53 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Montage of three pelicans by Ruth Jacobi-Roth published in "Salon Section 1-2-3." Popular Photography, March 1939, p. 47 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Head by Ruth Jacobi-Roth published in Maloney 1940, p. 138 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Hafen-Romantik und Wolkenkratzer (image by Jacobi, Berlin) and Schönheit der Wolkenkratzer (image by E.O. Hoppé, Mauritius) in New York, published in Leitich 1932, pp. 14–15 (Archive Helene Roth).
    Das arme New York (image by Jacobi, Berlin); Trödelladen im Italienerviertel (image by Scherl) New York, published in Leitich 1932, pp. 56–57 (Archive Helene Roth).
    Medical Center, die größte Klinik der Welt (am oberen Hudson) (image by Presse-Photo, Berlin); Tausendäugige Häuserfront (image by Jacobi, Berlin), New York, published in Leitich 1932, pp. 48–49 (Archive Helene Roth).
    Ruhepause bei den Grabsteinen der Trinity Church (image by Scherl); Auch ein Platz für Mittagsruhe (image by Jacobi, Berlin); Orangedrink nach heißer Bahnhfahrt (image by Ewing Galloway, N.Y); Ein Fünfcentstück öffnet die Drehtür zur Untergrundbahn (image by Ewing Galloway, N.Y), published in Leitich 1932, pp. 16–17 (Archive Helene Roth).
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Anonymous. "Salon Section. Four Of A Kind." Popular Photography, December 1937, pp. 48–49.

    Anonymous. "Salon Section. Twins." Popular Photography, February 1938, pp. 46–47; 68.

    Anonymous. "Picture of the Months" Popular Photography, March 1938, pp. 42–43; 62.

    Anonymous. "Salon Section. Dolls." Popular Photography, March 1938, pp. 52–53; 62.

    Anonymous. "Salon Section. 1-2-3." Popular Photography, March 1939, pp. 47–48; 64.

    Atelier Lotte Jacobi. Berlin – New York, edited by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat, exh. cat. Das Verborgene Museum, Berlin, 1997.

    Maloney, Tom. U.S. Camera. Annual 1940. Random House, 1940.

    Ruth, Jacobi. "Thorn." (unpublished memoir, 1970s). Center for Jewish History. Leo Baeck Insitute, New York.

    Ruth Jacobi. Fotografien, edited by Aubrey Pomerance, exh. cat. Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Berlin, 2008.

    Word Count: 101

  • Archives and Sources:

    Word Count: 27

  • Acknowledgements:

    My deepest thanks go to Sherard Harrington of the University of New Hampshire for providing me with material and images by Ruth and Lotte Jacobi.

    Word Count: 25

  • Author:
    Helene Roth
  • Exile:

    New York, US (1928–1930); New York, US (1935–1970s?).

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    Post Avenue, Inwood, New York City (residence, 1935–1936); Astoria, Queens, New York City (residence, 1936–ca.1970s); 1393 Six Avenue 57th Street, Central Park South, Manhattan, New York City (studio, 30.10.1935–10.1936); Corner Madison Avenue to East 58th Street, Times Square District, Manhattan, New York City (studio, 10.1936–1939).

  • Metropolis:
    New York
  • Helene Roth. "Ruth Jacobi." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 12-10-2021.
  • Walter Sanders
    New York

    Walter Sanders was a German émigré photographer. In 1938 he arrived in New York, where he worked from 1939 until the end of his life for the Black Star agency and, from 1944, for Life magazine.

    Word Count: 33

    Andreas Feininger
    New York

    Andreas Feininger, was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York with his wife Wysse Feininger in 1939. He started a lifelong career exploring the city's streets, working as a photojournalist and writing a large number of photography manuals.

    Word Count: 39

    Ruth Bernhard
    New York

    Ruth Bernhard was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1920s to the 1940s. Beside her series on female nudes, her place in the photography network, as well as in the New York queer scene, is unknown and understudied.

    Word Count: 43

    Lotte Jacobi
    New York

    In October 1935 the German émigré photographer Lotte Jacobi, together with her sister Ruth Jacobi, opened a photo studio on 57th Street. The two sisters had to leave their parents' photo studio in Berlin in the 1930s and emigrated to New York.

    Word Count: 41

    Gerda Peterich
    New York

    The German émigré Gerda Peterich had a photographic studio at 332 West 56th Street and in New York, where she specialised in dance and portraiture. In addition, she visited dance studios and photographed outside in the city.

    Word Count: 36

    Ann Tizia Leitich
    JournalistAuthorArt Critic
    New York

    Ann Tizia Leitich was an émigré Austrian author, journalist and art critic, who wrote essays, feuilletons and reviews on the American society and women for German and Austrian newspapers.

    Word Count: 29

    Carola Gregor
    New York

    The German émigré photographer Carola Gregor was an animal and child photographer and published some of her work in magazines and books. Today her work and life are almost forgotten.

    Word Count: 30

    Trude Fleischmann
    New York

    Trude Fleischmann was an Austrian-Jewish portrait and dance photographer who emigrated in 1939 to New York, where she opened a studio in Midtown Manhattan with the photographer Frank Elmer.

    Word Count: 28

    New York
    New York

    In 1932, after her remigration to Vienna, the Austrian journalist Ann Tizia Leitich published New York, an account of her life and writing experiences started as an emigrant in New York in the 1920s.

    Word Count: 33

    Christmas Exhibition of The Center for European Immigrant's Art and Handicraft
    Photo Supplier
    New York

    Spiratone was a photo company and photo supplier founded in 1941 by the Austrian émigré family Hans (1888–1944) and Paula Spira (?–?) and their son Fred Spira (1924–2007).

    Word Count: 24

    Hermann Landshoff
    New York

    Besides outdoor fashion shots, Hermann Landshoff was a portrait and street photographer. During his time in New York, he captured the cultural, artistic and intellectual émigré scene as well as his photographer colleagues.

    Word Count: 33

    Kurt Safranski
    Picture AgentFounding MemberTeacherCartoonistPublisherIllustrator
    New York

    Kurt Safranski was one of the founding members of the Black Star photo agency, a teacher at the New School for Social Research and the author of photojournalistic articles and books.

    Word Count: 31

    Werner Wolff
    New York

    Werner Wolff was forced to leave Germany in 1936 due to his Jewish background and emigrated via Hamburg to New York, where he could follow his career as photographer and photojournalist.

    Word Count: 30

    Josef Breitenbach
    New York

    On arriving in New York in 1941, the German photographer Josef Breitenbach tried to restart as a portrait, street and experimental photographer, as well as a teacher of photo-history and techniques.

    Word Count: 30

    Lisette Model
    New York

    Lisette Model was an Austrian-born photographer who lived in New York with her husband Evsa Model after emigrating from France. Her street photographs capturing the curiosities of everyday life quickly caught the interest of museums and magazines.

    Word Count: 37

    Alexey Brodovitch
    PhotographerArt DirectorGraphic Designer
    New York

    Alexey Brodovitch was a Belarus-born émigré graphic artist, art director and photographer who, from 1933, worked in New York for Harper’s Bazaar magazine and at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 31

    Rolf Tietgens
    New York

    Rolf Tietgens was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York in 1938. Although, in the course of his photographic career, his artistic and surrealist images were published and shown at exhibitions, his work, today, is very little known.

    Word Count: 39

    John Heartfield
    ArtistGraphic DesignerFotomonteur (mounter of photographs)

    After escaping from his first exile in Prague in December 1938, the political artist John Heartfield lived in London since 1950, working for Picture Post and the publisher Lindsay Drummond.

    Word Count: 28

    Lilly Joss
    New York

    Lilly Joss was an émigré freelance photographer in New York. She worked for the Black Star photo agency and magazines and was also a portrait and theatre photographer.

    Word Count: 28

    New York

    Ylla was an Austrian-born photographer who emigrated to New York in 1941. Specialising in animal photography, she produced not only studio photographs, but also shot outside on urban locations in the metropolis.

    Word Count: 31

    Fritz Henle
    New York

    Fritz Henle was a German Jewish photographer who emigrated in 1936 to New York, where he worked as a photojournalist for various magazines. He also published several photobooks of his travels throughout North America and Asia.

    Word Count: 35

    Ernest Mayer
    Picture AgentFounding MemberPublisher
    New York

    Ernest Mayer was co-founder of the Black Star Publishing Company photo agency, which built a network for émigré photographers and the American magazine scene from the mid-1930s until the end of the 1950s.

    Word Count: 34

    Rudy Burckhardt
    New York

    Rudy Burckhardt was a Swiss-born photographer, filmmaker and painter who emigrated from Basle to New York City in 1935. He was well networked within the emerging Abstract Expressionist art scene of 1940s' and 50s'.

    Word Count: 33

    Black Star Agency
    Photo Agency
    New York

    The German émigrés Kurt S(z)afranski, Ern(e)st Mayer and Kurt Kornfeld founded Black Star in 1936. The photo agency established was a well-run networking institution in New York.

    Word Count: 31

    Julien Levy Gallery
    Art Gallery
    New York

    The Julien Levy Gallery was founded by the art dealer Julien Levy (1906–1981) in 1931, and was situated in the New York gallery district around 57th Street, where the Weyhe and Norlyst Gallery were also located.

    Word Count: 34