Promised Land

Ellen Thorbecke, 1902–1973, photographer, journalist, author.

Ellen Thorbecke
Portrait of Ellen Thorbecke from the jacket of Promised Land, Harper & Brother, 1947.

Ellen Kolban grew up in Berlin and on the estate of her father in what is now the Czech Republic. She attended conservatories and studied piano—her mother was opera singer Hermine Grundmann—before studying economics at the University of Berlin, where she met her first husband. As Ellen Catleen, she became a free-lance journalist, writing about music and theater for the Berliner Tageblatt and the Neue Freie Presse. In 1931, she bought her first camera, a Rolleiflex, and began to use it professionally when she traveled to China.

She spent much of the decade in Shanghai and Beijing, where her second husband, Willem Thorbecke, served as ambassador of the Netherlands. Ellen Thorbecke provided stories and images for a variety of German publications, as well as economic reports for the Berliner Tageblatt. Her series Chinareisen ganz allein (Solo Travels in China) appeared in the Deutsch-Chineseische Nachrichten. In 1934, English publishers Kelly & Walsh published Thorbecke’s first book about China, Peking Studies, with illustrations by another expatriate in China, Friedrich Schiff. Thorbecke and Schiff established a certain style in this and subsequent books together that cleverly wove commentary and imagery, sometimes penetrating the conceptual boundary between drawings and photography.

The war forced Thorbecke and her family to leave China for South Africa in 1941. In 1944, Harper & Brother approached her to make a work similar to her books about China, which would illustrate the development of Palestine and her family lived in Jerusalem for a year. They spent part of 1945 in Lebanon, where Ellen Thorbecke worked on a book about Beruit, that would remain unpublished.1 Lundgren, Ruben and Rik Suermont. Ellen Thorbecke: From Peking to Paris, Lecturis, 2021, p. 257 The family lived in the United States from 1946 until 1960. In the early years Ellen Thorbecke traveled and spoke extensively, addressing European issues and often the Middle East. “She is noted for fearlessness in her reports and opinions and her addresses correct many a prejudice and misconception.”2Writer to Give Talk on Israel: Mrs Thorbecke To Speak in City, Pensacola News Journal, March 6, 1949, p.12
In 1960, they made the Netherlands their home, but still spent half each year in Florida.

Ismar David visited Lebanon in 1945 and made, at least, a color sketch for the cover of Problem Area, Thorbecke’s unpublished Beirut work. Harper issued her Palestine book, Promised Land, in 1947 with cover, illustration and typography by David. The lively integration of text, photography, drawings and diagrams continued in many ways the style Schiff and Thorbecke had begun to develop in 1934. John Haynes Holmes wrote “This book will do more for the Jews in Palestine that a dozen official investigations and a thousand conference resolutions”3 Suermont, Rik. The Photobooks of Ellen Thorbecke in Ellen Thorbecke: From Peking to Paris by Rik Lundgren Ruben and Rik Suermont, Lecturis, 2021, p. 27

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