After military service and a period as a prisoner of war, Walter Peterhans began studying at the department of engineering at the Sächsische Technischen Universität (TU) Dresden in 1919. The following year, he studied mathematics, philosophy and art history at the Technische Hochschule München (TUM) and the university in Göttingen. He then studied photographic reproduction and printing processes at the Staatliche Akademie für Grafische Künste und Buchgewerbe Leipzig (Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig) from 1925 to 1926. After completing his studies and gaining his master’s certificate as a photographer in Weimar, Peterhans moved to Berlin in 1926/27. A year later, he was already established there as an independent industrial and portrait photographer of international renown.
In 1929, Walter Peterhans was appointed to the Bauhaus Dessau by Hannes Meyer, the second Bauhaus director succeeding Walter Gropius, as a photography teacher and director of the photography department. When it closed in 1933, he continued to work in Berlin. After the dissolution of the Bauhaus in 1933, Peterhans taught at Werner Graeff‘s photography school in Berlin.
From 1934, he taught at the Reimann-Schule in Berlin, which changed its name to the Kunst- und Werk-Privatschule für Gestaltung (private school of design, art and workmanship) in 1936. In addition, he wrote photography manuals and worked as a freelance photographer. From 1933 to 1936, he wrote at least four publications for the publishing house Knapp-Verlag. In 1938, Peterhans emigrated to the United States and was given a professorship lecturing in visual training, analysis and art history at the department of architecture of the Armour Institute, Chicago, later the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), then directed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In addition to teaching at the IIT (until 1960), he worked from 1945 to 1947 as a research associate for philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1953, as a guest lecturer at the Ulm School of Design (HfG), he was the head of the first basic course to follow the pedagogical principles of the Bauhaus. In 1959/60, he taught as a guest lecturer at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg.
Graeve, Inka (1993): Museum Folkwang Essen (Hg.): Walter Peterhans. Fotografien 1927-38, Essen; Fiedler, Jeannine (1990): Photography at the Bauhaus, Berlin; Schöbe, Lutz (2004): Bauhaus. Fotografie aus der Sammlung der Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, Florence.