Marcel Sternberger

Marcel Sternberger (1899-1956) was a master portraitist of the mid-twentieth century. He emphasized a psychological approach to portraiture; he sought to capture the inner-beings of his subjects in the “relatively short time allotted.” Few photographers “matched Sternberger’s determination to create what we might in retrospect call pathognomic portraits. Between the lively expressions he captured and the minimalist lighting he used to reveal them, one might argue that there is hardly a more recognizable portraitist in the history of photography.” (Philip Prodger, former Head of Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)

In Sternberger’s youth he served in World War I as an intelligence officer in the Austrian-Hungarian army. During the years that followed, his country saw the rise of communism and then fascism; neither was 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 handheld 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.  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. Marcel’s 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, 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, Sternberger 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 recto of Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism.

Letter from Sigmund Freud to Marcel Sternberger, 1938

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.

While in Washington Marcel photographed a variety of 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. The images were taken during a 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 was found in every school and government building in India and in embassies across the globe.

While living in New York City, the Sternbergers traveled to Mexico to photograph Miguel Alemán, 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 traveling 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 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.