Photographer Renate Ponsold Motherwell, who was married to the late artist Robert Motherwell, died in her sleep on Feb. 3, 2023 at the age of 87. Her death was confirmed by her stepdaughter Lise Motherwell.
Renate was born in Halle, Germany to Marie Louise and Gottfried Ponsold. World War II filled her life with danger and loss. Her mother entered a tuberculosis sanatorium while her father, a medical doctor and researcher on blood types, took care of the children.
The war and her father’s work forced the family to move several times; they often lived apart or with other families in small quarters. During those years she lost her three-year-old brother to the flu.
After the war, Renate attended Bayerische Staatslehranstalt für Photografie in Munich, where she studied art and photography and spent evenings in nightclubs photographing musicians including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Renate watched her father and sister taking photos and realized that she saw the world differently from them. She began to experiment with abstract photographic images, using only natural light.
When she graduated, her father gave her a ticket to the U.S., expecting her to stay for three weeks. Instead, she fell in love with the light, the grittiness, and the vibrant art scene in New York. She stayed, got her green card, and, years later, became an American citizen.
Her first New York job was in the darkroom at Portogallo. Then, after a year in a San Francisco histology lab, she returned East where she photographed the MoMA collection and installations of exhibitions.
Fiercely independent and unafraid, Renate traveled as a young adult through the U.S. to Mexico, Central and South America, and Egypt, taking photographs and keeping an illustrated diary. She had an exquisite eye for beautiful objects and was a keen collector of antiques.
In New York, Renate attended parties and openings and frequented the Cedar Bar, where she met poets and artists whom she photographed in their homes. She wrote, “Photographing artists, writers, and musicians at given moments … is somewhat a personal diary in the form of pictures, a psychological study, a challenge to capture the characteristics of a personality.” She became known for her portraits, which were reproduced in newspapers and magazines and exhibited in Europe and the U.S.
In 1972, she met the artist Robert Motherwell, whom she married in Wellfleet that summer. They spent their winters in a converted carriage house in Greenwich, Conn. and their summers at the Sea Barn in Provincetown until his death in 1991. Renate became Motherwell’s documentarian and for two decades produced thousands of photos of him, his work, and his exhibitions.
In 1977, Renate and Robert collaborated with editor Constance W. Glenn on a livre d’artiste and exhibition called Apropos based on selections from the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.
In 1989, she and the art historian Dore Ashton produced Eye to Eye: The Camera Remembers, a collection of photographs of influential postwar artists, novelists, musicians, critics, poets, and actors, including Alice Neel, Edward Albee, Man Ray, Roy Lichtenstein, Klaus Kinski, and Frank Stella, with an accompanying essay by Ashton.
In 1995 she was invited to be a member of Long Point Gallery in Provincetown.
Renate expressed a childlike glee over the smallest pleasure, such as finding croutons in a salad or the perfect postcard to send to a friend.
She had a wonderful sense of humor: One year she bought a foot-long remote-controlled toy convertible for Motherwell, who was a car fanatic. A couple rode in the car, top down, the man driving and the woman taking flash photos every time the car stopped. They laughed as they raced the car around the living room floor, recognizing themselves on an afternoon drive.
Renate will be remembered for her playfulness, creativity, roast duck, love of a good party and dancing, and for the peach champagne she always served.
She is survived by her two stepdaughters, Jeannie and Lise Motherwell, both of Cambridge; her brother-in-law, Leo Zitzlsperger of Pflaumdorf, Germany; her niece, Juliane Zitzlsperger of Regensberg, Germany; and her nephew, Philipp Zitzlsperger of Innsbruck, Austria.
Burial, to take place later in the year, will be private.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this obituary, published in print on April 20, misstated the date when Renate was invited to be a member of the Long Point Gallery. It was 1995, not the mid-1980s.