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Gerda Peterich

  • 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.
  • Gerda
  • Peterich
  • 09-03-1906
  • München (DE)
  • 07-1974
  • New Hampshire (US)
  • Photographer
  • 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.

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  • Portrait of Gerda Peterich, n.d. (© Gerda Peterich Papers, University Archives Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).
  • Gerda Peterich was born in Munich, Germany, on March 9, 1906, the child of an artistic family. Her father was a sculptor and professor of fine arts and her mother was a pianist. After spending her childhood with her three brothers and sister in Italy, she returned to Germany for schooling.  She studied piano at the State Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart from 1930 to 1933. But an injury to her shoulder prevented her from pursuing a musical career. After rethinking her interests in gardening, architecture, and photography, she decided to learn professional photography. From mid-1937 to the end of 1939 she studied photography at the Photographische Lehranstalt des Lette-Vereins in Berlin. In Berlin she married Dr. Kurt Robert Mattusch, who was economic counsellor for the U.S. State Department at the American Consulate. Other photographers receiving a professional photographic education at Lette Verein and also later emigrated to New York were the photographers Ruth Jacobi and perhaps Lilo Hess. It can be guessed that they could knew each other.

    Peterich arrived in New York in 1939 and shared an apartment there with her lifelong friend, Elisabeth (Lilly) Hoffmann, who became a professional weaver in the Upper West Side at 7 West 92th Street. Soon after her arrival Peterich opened her own photographic studio at 332 West 56th Street and took part in the Christmas Exhibition of the Center for European Immigrant's Art and Handicraft, held in November/December 1939 in the Empire State Building.

    She specialised in photographing dancers and dance, particularly modern dance, and her visual translations of the dancers' movements brought her recognition. In her photographs she tried to highlighted the dancer's personality and style as well as the dance itself. The modern dance scene in New York was shaped by a network of German émigrés, among them Hanya Holm, and by the Mary Wigman Dance School (113 West 57th Street). Like the émigrés photographers Lotte Jacobi, Thomas Bouchard, Arnold Genthe and Charlotte Rudolph, Gerda Peterich also produced portraits and photographs of solo dancers and choreographies. Several of these today form part of the Hanya Holm Papers at the New York Public Library. It can be assumed that Gerda Peterich was in New York from 1939 until 1946 and probably also in 1950, capturing most of the top dancers at a time when modern dance was flourishing.

    During the 1940s Peterich taught for two and a half years at The School of Modern Photography and from 1946 was a staff photographer with Dance Magazine. Her magazine articles and photos were published in several magazines and in 1947 eleven of her images appeared in the book The Dance; the story of the dance told in pictures and text, by John Martin (Tudor Publishing, 1947). One of America's first dance critics, Martin stressed his research into modern dance and its vocabulary in his lectures at the New School for Social Research during the 1930s and 1940s.

    At the end of the 1940s Peterich moved out of New York in order to further her career not only as a photographer, but also as a photo-researcher and art historian. In 1946, she began studies in Ohio, where she gained a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1950, she moved to Rochester (New York) to focus on her master studies in the history of architecture and photography. Her master thesis in the field of the history of photography in 1957 was the first to be accepted as artistic academic work. Her topic was "The Calotype in France and Its Use in Architectural Documentation," combined her lifelong interests in architecture and photography. During the 1950s and 1960s she had a variety of jobs as a freelancer and at the university, as well as curating exhibitions. Her efforts, knowledge and engagement in photo research finally procured her a professorship in art history and photography at Syracuse University from 1964 to 1968.

    Besides dance photography, while studying for her master’s degree, Peterich also took images of and conducted photo research into America's cobblestone architecture. In 1955, she created a circulating photography exhibition titled Cobblestone Architecture of Upstate New York. The following year an article featuring her images and research was published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (May 1956). Peterich continued to photograph cobblestone architecture for the rest of her life.

    Although Gerda Peterich had a name as photographer in the modern dance scene in New York and was also known for her architectural photographs and her work as a photo researcher, her life and work as a German émigré is today forgotten and understudied.

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  • Pear Primus by Gerda Peterich published in The Dance, edited by John Martin, Tudor Publishing, 1947, p. 146 (Photo: Helene Roth).
  • Martin, John. The dance; the story of the dance told in pictures and text. Tudor Publishing, 1947.

    Peterich, Gerda. “Cobblestone Architecture of Upstate New York.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 15, no. 2, May 1956, pp. 12–18. JSTOR. Accessed 5 March 2021.

    Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. Abbeville Press, 1994.

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  • My deepest thanks go to the Special Collections and Research Center at the Syracuse University for granting me permission to use images.

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  • Helene Roth
  • New York, US (1939–1946?).

  • 7 West 92nd Street, Upper West Side, New York City (residence 1939–1946?); 332 West 56th Street, Central Park South, Manhattan, New York City (studio, 1940–1949).

  • New York
  • Helene Roth. "Gerda Peterich." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 26-11-2022.
  • 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

    Ellen Auerbach
    New York

    When she arrived in New York in 1937, the German-born photographer Ellen Auerbach (formerly Rosenberg) had already passed through exile stations in Palestine and Great Britain.

    Word Count: 25

    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

    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

    Christmas Exhibition of The Center for European Immigrant's Art and Handicraft
    Lilo Hess
    New York

    The German émigré Lilo Hess was an animal photographer working for the Museum for Natural History and the Bronx Zoo, as well being a freelance photographer and publisher of children's books.

    Word Count: 31

    Ruth Jacobi
    New York

    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

    New School for Social Research
    Academy/Art SchoolPhoto SchoolUniversity / Higher Education Institute / Research Institute
    New York

    During the 1940s and 1950s emigrated graphic designers and photographers, along with artists and intellectuals, were given the opportunity to held lectures and workshops at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 31