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Margarethe (Margaret) Michaelis (1902–1985)

by Helen Ennis

This article was published:

Margarethe Michaelis (1902-1985), photographer, was born on 6 April 1902 at Dzieditz, near Bielsko, Austria (Poland), daughter of Jewish parents Heinrich Gross, doctor, and his wife Fanni, née Robinsohn. She moved to Vienna to study (1918-21) at the Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt (Institute of Graphic Arts and Research). After a job at the Studio d’Ora, in 1922 she joined Grete Kolliner Atelier Für Porträt Photographie, where she remained for five years. She then worked in Berlin at Binder Photographie and in Prague at Fotostyle studio. Settling in Berlin in 1929, she was hired by Atelier K. Schenker, Suse Byk Atelier Für Photographische Porträts and Photos Winterfeld but also experienced intermittent unemployment.

Margarethe married Rudolf (Michel) Michaelis, an archaeological restorer and an anarcho-syndicalist, on 2 October 1933 in Berlin. Following the Nazi Party’s consolidation of power, they were arrested in separate incidents and Rudolf was imprisoned. After his release in December 1933 they fled to Spain, where they separated in 1934 and divorced in 1937.

In Barcelona Michaelis established her own business, Foto-elis, and collaborated with a group of progressive Catalan architects associated with Josep Lluis Sert. Her fine architectural and documentary photographs, published in the magazines A.C. and D’Ací i d’Allà, played an important (though often anonymous) role in the representation of Barcelona’s modernity. Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War she worked primarily in an anti-fascist mode. Her photographs appeared in Generalitat Propaganda Commissariat publications, including Nova Iberia.

Michaelis returned to her family at Bielsko in 1937. Next year she was granted a German passport; after some months in London she travelled to Sydney, arriving in September 1939. She worked initially as a domestic help but soon resumed her photographic career. In 1940 having Anglicised her first name, she opened ‘Photo-studio’ in Castlereagh Street. She specialised in portraiture—especially of Jewish subjects and those involved in the arts. Her subjects included the author Cynthia Reed, the sculptor Lyndon Dadswell and members of the Bodenwieser Ballet. Michaelis’s photographs were published in the journal Australia and in Australian Photography 1947. She joined the Professional Photographers’ Associations of New South Wales and Australia in 1941 and was the sole female member of the Institute of Photographic Illustrators.

Although Michaelis was under surveillance by the Australian government during World War II, she continued to work and was naturalised in 1945. She closed her studio in 1952, due to poor eyesight. For two years she was Richard Hauser’s and Hephzibah Menuhin’s secretary. On 3 March 1960 at Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Melbourne, she married Albert George Sachs (d.1965), a glass merchant who was a widower; she helped him in his framing business in Melbourne.

In 1981 Michaelis’s work was included in the touring exhibition Australian Women Photographers 1840-1960. A small, engaging and lively woman, who moved and talked ‘like quicksilver’, she could also be intense and demanding. Margaret Michaelis died on 16 October 1985 in Melbourne and was cremated. Solo retrospective exhibitions were held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (1987, 2005) and the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern Centre Julio González, Spain (1998). Her work is in the National Gallery of Australia and the Arxiu Històric del Col.legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya, Barcelona.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Hall and J. Mather, Australian Women Photographers 1840-1960 (1986)
  • H. Ennis, ‘Michaelis-Sachs, Margaret’, in J. Kerr (ed), Heritage (1995) and ‘Blue Hydrangeas’, in R. Butler (ed), The Europeans (1997)
  • H. Ennis, Margaret Michaelis (2005)
  • Modernism/Modernity, vol 10, no 1, 2003, p 141
  • Michaelis-Sachs papers (National Gallery of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Helen Ennis, 'Michaelis, Margarethe (Margaret) (1902–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gross, Margarethe
  • Sachs, Margarethe
  • Michaelis-Sachs, Margarethe

6 April, 1902
Bielsko, Poland


16 October, 1985 (aged 83)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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