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.