Australian Women's Register

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Michaelis, Margaret (1902 - 1985)

6 April 1902
Dzieditz, Poland
16 October 1985
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Artist, Painter and Professional photographer
Alternative Names
  • Gross, Margaret
  • Michaelis-Sachs, Margaret
  • Sachs, Margaret


Margaret Michaelis was a professional photographer who specialised in documentary photography, portraiture and dance photography. She trained in Vienna before living in Prague, Berlin and then Spain, associating with anarchic and other left-wing groups. Many of Michaelis' European photographs documented everyday life in order to encourage progressive social critique. Michaelis fled Europe on the cusp of WW2 and eventually made her home in Sydney, Australia. Her photography in Australia was mainly studio portraiture, with a clientele of Jewish émigrés and members of the art community. Michaelis made use of natural light and natural poses in order to explore the psychological states of her subjects.


Margaret Michaelis was a professional photographer who specialised in documentary photography, portraiture and dance photography.

Margaret Gross was born on 6 April 1902 in Dzieditz, Poland, of Jewish parents Heinrich Gross, a doctor, and his wife Fanni, née Robinsohn. She trained at Graphische Lehr und Versuchsanstalt, Vienna, Austria (Institute of Graphic Arts and Research) from 1917-1921. She began her career in photography working in a number of Viennese studios, including Studio d'Ora of Madame D'Ora, initially as a retoucher before working as a fully-fledged photographer.

1928 saw her living in Prague, before moving to Berlin the following year along with Rudolph Michaelis, an archaeological restorer and an anarchist, whom she eventually married in 1933. With Hitler's rise to power, the couple spent several short spells in jail and upon being finally released they left Berlin and headed to Barcelona. She opened up a photography studio there, which she called 'foto-elis.' It was situated on the Avenue Republica Argentina. Her Spanish photographs are marked by her predilection for depicting people who were socially engaged and in outdoor settings. They were also made using natural light. During this period she also documented a proposed redevelopment of a slum area in Barcelona for a group of progressive architects, the GATCPAC (Grupo de Artistas y Técnicos Españoles Para la Arquitectura Contemporánea), which had associations with Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

When the couple divorced in November 1937, Margaret Michaelis left Barcelona, heading firstly to France and then Bielsko, Poland, to visit her parents. In Poland she went to Cracow and photographed the Jewish ghetto. From there in December 1938, she managed to get a visa enabling her to travel and work in the UK where she worked as a domestic servant until she was granted a visa to migrate to Australia.

Michaelis arrived in Sydney on 2 September 1939 and the following year opened her own 'Photo-studio' on the seventh floor of the building at 11 Castlereagh Street. She promoted herself as a photographer of 'Home' portraits, gardens and interiors. However, she was largely known for her portraiture and dance photography working mainly with the Bodenwieser Company. Many of her clients were of European and Jewish background, as well as those connected with the arts.

Her photographs were noted for her ability to capture the inner character and uniqueness of her sitters. 'She believed that a portrait should reflect the soul of the sitter and wanted to capture the essence of her subject's personality rather than a superficial likeness' (Ennis, Heritage 59). Her portrait of Cynthia Nolan (née Reed), c. 1948, is a perfect example of her style. Nolan's face is centrally positioned in the composition, her eyes stare directly at the camera, as she sits leaning back against a chair, one arm diagonally raised over her head. The effect is such that the onlooker is drawn towards the face and eyes.

In 1941 she became a member of the Professional Photographers Associations of New South Wales and Australia. She was also a member of the Institute of Photographic Illustrators - the only female member. During the war years she was placed under surveillance by the Australian government during WW2, but she continued to work and was naturalised in 1945. By 1952 her eyesight was failing and she had to close her studio. She began working instead as a typist for the social workers Richard Hauser and Hephzibah Menuhin. She married Albert George Sachs in 1960 and the couple moved to Melbourne, where they operated a framing business. Her husband died in 1965, at which point she closed the business. Margaret Michaelis-Sachs travelled extensively in Europe and Asia during the late 1960s and '70s. Her focus shifted to drawing and painting and in 1978 while she was studying painting with Erica McGilchrist, she contributed one of her drawings to the Women's Art Forum Annual..

Margaret Michaelis-Sachs died in 1985.


Art Gallery of South Australia

Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne

National Gallery of Australia,

National Library of Australia

State Library of Victoria


1920s - 1952
Active as professional photographer. Location: Europe and Sydney, NSW.
Exhibition - Margaret Michaelis's work appeared in the Women's Art Forum Annual
Exhibition - Margaret Michaelis's work featured in Australian Women Photographers 1850-1954,. Location: Melbourne, Victoria.
Exhibition - Solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia. Location: Melbourne, Victoria.
Exhibition - Margaret Michaelis's work featured in The Reflecting Eye: Portraits of Australian Visual Artists.. Location: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, ACT.
Exhibition - Margaret Michaelis, Fotografia, Vanguardia y Politica en la Barcelona de la Republica exhibition. Location: IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia and Barcelona, Spain.
Exhibition - Margaret Michaelis's work featured in Mirror with a Memory: Photographic Portraiture in Australia exhibition.. Location: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, ACT.

Archival resources

National Gallery of Australia

  • Margaret Michaelis-Sachs archive., 1920 - 1978, NGA86.1384.1-498.; Michaelis, Margaret; National Gallery of Australia. Details

The Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria

  • Michaelis, Margaret: Artist File.; Michaelis, Margaret; The Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria. Details

State Library of Victoria

Anne Maxwell (with Morfia Grondas and Lucy Van)

Site-wide information and acknowledgements

National Foundation for Australian Women The University of Melbourne, eScholarship Research Centre

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