Marcel Sternberger photographed the likes of Sigmund Freud, Frida Kahlo and 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.
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 emigrating 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.