Marcel Sternberger

Though the modern American public is only now coming to know Sternberger’s name, almost everyone has carried one of his images. A portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt taken by Marcel was the basis for the American dime. This marks Sternberger as one of the great photographers of the last century, but it also makes him as prolific as any artist in history. How the art of a refugee from World War II came to live in America’s pockets is an amazing story.

Marcel Sternberger began his life in 1899 as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and served in World War I as an intelligence officer. During the years that followed, his country saw the rise of communism and then fascism, and neither were good for Marcel and his family. In the late 1920’s, after protesting the anti-Semitic regime with other veterans, he fled Austria-Hungary.

Eventually he arrived in France. There he began his career as a journalist. He would go on to write for Le Soir and Le Soir Illustré among other publications. When he later became a photographer, he brought to his work his journalistic instincts, turning every portrait session into an interview documented with his hand held Leica.

He soon moved from Paris to Germany. In 1932, he met his future wife Ilse, at the time a film student. It was actually Ilse’s love of film that would translate into a career as a photographer for Marcel.  Indeed she gave him his first camera, a Leica, as a wedding gift. After they were engaged, the Sternbergers travelled back to Paris.

Marcel Sternberger leaving the White House, Washington, D.C., 1939

Their wedding was planned for June of 1932, but Marcel learned through his journalistic contacts that the Nazis planned on confiscating the passports of Jews to prevent them from leaving Germany. He returned to Berlin and the couple was married in April. The day after their wedding they were detained by the Gestapo; after being released they quickly fled to Paris, where Marcel began his forays into photography.

Shortly thereafter, the couple fled further to Antwerp. His professional life as a portrait photographer began when he was commissioned in 1935 to photograph the Belgian royal family. The session was such a success he was then named Official Photographer to the Belgian Royal Family.

In addition to his journalistic training, Marcel brought to his portrait sessions his knowledge of the psychology of portrait photography. It was a new interdisciplinary field of inquiry of which he was one of the leading proponents and practitioners. Marcel believed that only by gaining insight into a person, through knowledge of their history and personality, could a revealing and authentic portrait be created by the photographer. Using a keen sense of interpersonal psychology to maneuver the subject and session toward desired moments, he then captured those moments forever with his camera. 

Whether insecure or overly bold, comfortable with the camera or more recalcitrant, each subject brought to the portrait session specific psychological traits that Sternberger analyzed. He adapted his psychological methodology each time to create the memorable and beautiful portraits of both famous and everyday people you will find on this site and to a greater degree in The Psychological Portrait.    

In 1939 the Sternbergers, with two children, fled to England to escape Nazism’s growing reach. The circumstances of World War II left Sternberger an international citizen; he spoke fourteen languages and moved between more than ten countries over the course of his career. In London, his first subject of note was the novelist Stefan Zweig, a prolific and popular author whose work recently inspired the film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Marcel also photographed H.G. Wells, A.J. Cronin, and Pearl S. Buck, three other well-known English writers. 

Letter from Sigmund Freud to Marcel Sternberger, 1938

Sternberger also photographed Sigmund Freud. Freud was terminally ill with jaw cancer and his session with Sternberger would be his last portrait sitting. The photographs are as technically accomplished as any produced at the time. One of them was used on the cover of Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism.

Next to appear in front of Sternberger’s lens was George Bernard Shaw. Shaw was an author, dramatist, composer of music, and the co-founder of the London School of Economics. It was an acrimonious process to photograph the notoriously difficult Shaw, but well worth it: the sitting produced spectacular portraiture.

Sternberger first reached the safety of America when he was invited to create an official portrait for Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. Roosevelt had seen Sternberger’s work when Joseph Kennedy used one of his photographs on the cover of his yearly Christmas card.

It was Roosevelt who presumably referred Sternberger to Dr. Hu Shih, the ambassador for China. When he met with Dr. Shih, Sternberger said directly “…I’d like to talk with you for a while. If I don’t know my sitters I can’t do more than produce superficial, essentially worthless portraits.” 

This displays one of the essential aspects of Marcel’s work, the establishment of rapport with his sitters. Before their shoot Shih and Marcel not only spoke at length, but Dr. Shih played Sternberger records of Chinese folk music that his mother had sung to him as a child. It was this sort of intimate interpersonal relationship that provided the fertile ground on which Sternberger based his portrait sessions.

While in Washington Marcel photographed a variety of other diplomats, senators, and political notables. He soon brought his family to America and they settled in New York City, where Sternberger began a private photography practice.

In 1950 he travelled to Princeton, New Jersey, and photographed Albert Einstein in his home. The two had met before in Europe where Einstein had furnished a preface to one of Sternberger’s books, and would later correspond. Few people have come to know so intimately such a wide variety of luminary personalities. Part of this intimacy came from spending time in their homes and conversing with them on a wide range of topics. 

Marcel Sternberger posing Dr. Ramón Beteta, Mexico, 1952

1950 was also the year that Sternberger photographed the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his highly influential daughter, Indira Gandhi, on their trip to their first meeting at the United Nations in New York City. One of Sternberger’s portraits of Nehru was used as his official government portrait as well as on the cover of his book Glimpses of World History. The picture could be found in every school and government building in India and in embassies across the globe.

While living in New York City, the Sternbergers travelled to Mexico to photograph Miguel Aleman, Mexico’s president, among other business and governmental elites. After this official presidential session they ironically became intimate friends of the communist radicals and artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Sternberger would go on to produce some of his finest work photographing Kahlo and Rivera. 

Tragically, in 1956, while travelling back from New York to visit the couple in Mexico, Marcel Sternberger died in a car crash in Christiansburg, Virginia. His devastated wife guarded his archive of negatives, photographs, manuscripts, and ephemera closely for the next forty years; his work fell from public view.

After his death Marcel Sternberger went from a well-known artist featured in radio broadcasts around the country and known to some of the most powerful people in the world to a forgotten portraitist, despite the continued use of his images across the globe. Although his work was selected as one of only two photography shows (the other being the work of Alfred Stieglitz) at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago the year after it established a photography department, it has gone virtually undisplayed from his death until now. This website, exhibitions, and The Psychological Portrait will begin to rectify that unfortunate state of affairs and bring Marcel’s genius back into public view where it can be appreciated and enjoyed.