Margaret Michaelis-Sachs was an Austrian-Australian photographer of Polish-Jewish origin. In addition to her many portraits, her architectural scenes of Barcelona and her images of the Jewish quarter in Kraków in the 1930s are of lasting historical interest.
Born in Dzieditz near Bielsko in southern Poland (then Austria-Hungary) on April 6, 1902, she was the daughter of Heinrich Gross, a well-to-do Jewish doctor. She studied photography at Vienna’s Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt from 1918 to 1921
In 1922, still in Vienna, she first worked for a period at the Sudio d’Ora before spending a number of years at the Atelier für Porträt Photographie. She went on to work for Binder Photographie in Berlin and Fotostyle in Prague, and finally returned to Berlin in 1929 to work intermittently for a variety of studios during the hard times of the Depression.
In October 1933, she married Rudolf Michaelis who, as an anarcho-syndicalist, was almost immediately arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis. In December 1933, after Rudolf’s release, the couple moved to Spain but they separated shortly afterwards. In Barcelona, Michaelis opened her own studio, Foto-elis. Collaborating with a group of architects, she produced documentary images of progressive architecture which were published in Catalan journals such as D’Ací i d’Allà and, after the start of the civil war, Nova Iberia.
After returning to Poland in 1937, she obtained a German passport, went to London and, in September 1939, emigrated to Australia, first working as a house maid in Sydney. In 1940, she opened her “Photo-studio”, becoming one of the few women photographers in Sydney. She specialized in portraits, especially of Europeans, Jews and people in the arts, many published in Australia and Australian Photography. A member of the photographers’ associations of New South Wales and Australia, in 1941 she was the only woman to join the Institute of Photographic Illustrators.
Margaret Michaelis’ photographic career came to an end in 1952 as a result of poor eyesight. In 1960, she married Albert George Sachs, a glass merchant. She died on 10 October 1985 in Melbourne.
In her early life, Michaelis used the sharp focus and sometimes unusual vantage points of modernist photography while her portraits sought to reveal the psychological essence of her sitters. Her portraits were primarily focused on capturing the lives of Jewish immigrants. Of particular significance is the small set of scenes from the Jewish market in Kraków taken in the 1930s. Helen Ennis of the National Gallery of Australia stated the images “carry the weight of history, offering a visual trace of a way of life that was destroyed by fascism”.