See Revealing Portraits of Frida Kahlo and Einstein From a Forgotten Master Photographer
Marcel Sternberger was the leading portrait photographer of his day.
Marcel Sternberger photographed the likes of Sigmund Freud, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Albert Einstein, and George Bernard Shaw. His portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the basis for the president’s likeness on the dime. And yet, his name was forgotten, until a young photography and antiquarian book dealer named Jacob Loewentheil discovered his photographs, abandoned in storage.
A new exhibition, “The Portraits of Marcel Sternberger: Icons of the 20th Century,” at New York’s PRPH Books, brings to light this little known artist, showing 21 of his photos, many of which have never before been exhibited.
“Since his death in 1956, Sternberger’s work has remained almost entirely out of the public eye,” said Loewentheil in a statement. “Sternberger’s revolutionary process marked a turning point in the history of photography, and we are proud to present his remarkable story to a new generation of admirers.”
Sternberger was born in 1899. He fled his native Hungary due to antisemitism, only to wind up in Nazi Germany. He and his wife, Ilse, were detained by the Gestapo, but made it out of the country in 1933. They moved to Antwerp, where he became the Belgian Royal Family’s official photographer. As war engulfed Europe, Sternberger moved to London, before immigrating to the US, where he was enlisted to take FDR’s official portrait.
“In his heyday, world leaders and preeminent persons recognized him as the leading portrait photographer of his generation,” Loewentheil told American Photo.
The artist traveled the US and Mexico, photographing numerous luminaries, his work appearing in international newspapers, on book covers, and postage stamps. In his travels, he became close friends with Rivera and Kahlo, returning time and time again to the couple’s Mexico City home, la Casa Azul.
Sternberger’s method for producing emotive portraits that captured his sitter’s personality involved what he called “The Psychology of Portrait Photography.” Described by the New York Times as “a unique blend of psychological and photographic techniques,” the methodology involved conversing with his subjects before immortalizing them with a handheld Leica 35mm camera.
Tragically, Sternberger died in an automotive accident in 1956. Ilse held onto his archives for decades, before passing them along to Stephen Loewentheil, founder of Brooklyn’s 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, in 1996.
Stephen Loewentheil intended to publish a book of Sternberger’s work, but the task ultimately fell to his son Jacob, who rediscovered the archive, forgotten in storage. The younger Loewenthiel released a book, The Psychological Portrait: Marcel Sternberger’s Revelations in Photography, in 2016.
An expanded version of the exhibition will appear this October at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery at New York’s Baruch College.
“The Portraits of Marcel Sternberger: Icons of the 20th Century” is on view at PRPH Books, 26 East 64th Street, New York, March 28–April 15.
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