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Ernest Mayer

  • Ernest Mayer was co-founder of the Black Star Publishing Company photo agency, which built a network for émigré photographers and the American magazine scene from the mid-1930s until the end of the 1950s.
  • Given name:
  • Last name:
  • Alternative names:

    Ernst Mayer

  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Bingen (DE)
  • Date of Death:
  • Place of Death:
    New York City (US)
  • Profession:
    Picture AgentFounding MemberPublisher
  • Introduction:

    Ernest Mayer was co-founder of the Black Star Publishing Company photo agency, which built a network for émigré photographers and the American magazine scene from the mid-1930s until the end of the 1950s.

    Word Count: 34

  • Signature Image:
    Portrait of Ernest Mayer at the Black Star Office, December 1936, New York (© Heirs of Kurt Kornfeld).
  • Content:

    Ernst Mayer was born in Bingen, Germany, where he took an apprenticeship in a banking house. He then worked in London and Paris before serving in the military during the First World War. During the 1920s he worked at the Rowohlt publishing house in Berlin and at the same time founded his own publishing house. The Mauritius Verlag initially published children's and art literature before specialising as a photo publisher.
    During this time the demand for images and the network of photographers, photo agencies and illustrated magazines as well as publishing houses began to develop. Since the illustrated magazines could only afford a few staff photographers, photo agencies mediated between photographers and magazines. One of these agencies was Mauritius. On the side, Ernst Mayer began selling pictures by freelance photographers to the illustrated magazines, pursuing the strategy of selling entire reportage ideas. He suggested topics to magazine editors, even discussing the structure and layout of stories with them. Mauritius was commercially successful quite quickly and in 1929 Ernst Mayer travelled to the U.S. in a quest for material as there was a high demand for foreign images in Germany. With the seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933, the art and photojournalism markets dried up and working as a Jew became almost impossible.
    In 1922 Ernst Mayer married Helene Hirschberg (1894–1945) and they had two daughters, Regina (1926–2002) and Dorli (1931–1936). In Berlin, Ernst Mayer was in contact with Kurt Safranski, who worked at the Ullstein publishing house. Through Ernest Mayer’s mother, Mathilde Mayer (1869–1969), it is known that Kurt Kornfeld was also a friend of the Mayer family (Mayer 1991, 97). So Mayer, Kornfeld and Safranski already knew each other before they founded the Black Star Publishing Company in New York in 1936.

    In 1935 Ernst Mayer worked for a short time in London but Kurt Safranski suggested that he move to New York. He made a visit the same year and decided to emigrate, which he did, arriving in New York in June 1935. Kurt Kornfeld moved to New York in 1936 and he and Ernst Mayer embarked on a plan to set up a new publishing house. Ernst Mayer sold his Mauritius publishing house to a Swiss photo agent in 1935 but was able to transfer part of his photo archive to New York. This provided a starting point for Black Star photo agency. Mayer's network of other German photographers who had emigrated to New York also helped him build the company. Kurt Safranski, who had been working at the Hearst Corporation, joined Mayer and Kurt Kornfeld in 1936 and became the third founding member of the Black Star Publishing Company. It was during this time that Ernst Mayer americanised his given name to Ernest.

    As the demand for foreign and especially European images was high in the U.S., Black Star opened a branch in London's Fleet Street and for most of the time one of the three founders was based there. The London base allowed Ernest Mayer to meet his mother Mathilde Mayer and his brother Willy Mayer and it was from there that he also organised the emigration to New York of his wife Helene Mayer, in 1936, and of his mother, in 1937. During his first year in New York, from 1935 to 1936, Ernest resided at the Park Crescent Hotel at 150 Riverside Drive, where other German émigrés like Kurt Korff and Kurt Safranski had also lived and where he was joined in 1936 by Kurt Kornfeld. In 1936 Mayer and Kornfeld moved to a house at 30 Parcot Avenue, in New Rochelle, where already Kurt Safranski and his family lived. In August 1936, after his wife Helene and daughter Regina arrived in New York, the family moved a street across to 89 Eastchester Road, then later to 94 Hillside Avenue, also in New Rochelle.

    The commute from New Rochelle to the Black Star office could be done by train, arriving at Grand Central Station, from which there was direct access to 420 Lexington Avenue, where the agency was located. In 1937 Kurt Kornfeld and Kurt Safranski met Ernest Mayer’s mother Mathilde Mayer in London and she travelled to New York with Kornfeld and stayed with her son and his family in New Rochelle from March to May, 1937. Finally, on 2 October, 1937, at the age of 68, she emigrated to New York to begin a new life with a new language.

    At Black Star, Ernest Mayer worked with émigré photographers from Europe, including Ruth Bernhard, Ralph Crane (Rudolf Crohn), Andreas Feininger, Fritz Goro (Gorodiski), Carola Gregor (Gorodiski, née Margarete Meyer), Philippe Halsman, Fritz Henle, Lilly Joss (née Joseph), Lisa Larsen (née Rothschild), Walter Sanders (née Süssmann), Fred Stein, Roman Vishniac and Werner Wolff.

    Word Count: 772

  • Media:
    Signature by Ernest Mayer in a letter to Fred Stein (© Fred Stein Archive).
    Walt Sanders and Alfred Kornfeld, son of Black Star cofounder Kurt Kornfeld. Sheldrake Lake, New Rochelle, NY, November 1939 (© Heirs of Kurt Kornfeld).
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Amy. “A Family Uprootes by Nazis: Mathilde Gross Mayer and Her Family.” 12 September 2016, Brotmanblog: A Family Journey. Accessed 5 April 2021.

    Fischer, Ernst. Verleger, Buchhändler & Antiquare aus Deutschland und Österreich in der Emigration nach 1933. Ein biographisches Handbuch. Verband Deutscher Antiquare e.V., 2011.

    Gervais, Thierry. The Making of Visual News. A History of Photography in the Press. Translated by John Tittenson, Bloomsbury, 2017.

    Kornfeld, Phoebe. Passionate Publishers. The Founders of the Black Star Photo Agency. University of Missouri Press, 2021.

    Mayer, Mathilde. Die Alte und die Neue Welt (1951). Arbeitskreis Jüdisches Bingen, 2003. [Original text was completed in 1951 by Ernest Mayer’s mother while in exile in New Rochelle, New York.]

    Morris, John Godfrey. Get the Picture. A Personal History of Photojournalism. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    Neubauer, Hendrik. Black Star. 60 Years of Photojournalism. Könemann, 1997.

    New York Photography 1890–1950. Von Stieglitz bis Man Ray, edited by Ortrud Westheider and Michael Philipp, exh. cat Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg, 2012.

    Oels, David, and Ute Schneider, editors. “Der ganze Verlag ist einfach eine Bonbonniere”: Ullstein in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts. De Gruyter, 2014.

    Schaber, Irme. “Fotografie.” Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933–1945, edited by Claus-Dieter Krohn and Patrick von zur Mühlen, WBG, 1998, pp. 970–983.

    Smith, C. Zoe. “Émigré photography in America: contributions of German photojournalism from Black Star Picture Agency to Life magazine, 1933–1938.” (unpublished dissertation, School of Journalism in the Graduate College of the University of Iowa, Iowa City, December 1983).

    Smith, C. Zoe. “Black Star Picture Agency: Life’s European Connection.” Journalism History, vol. 13, no. 1, 1986, pp. 19–25.

    Smith, C. Zoe. “Die Bildagentur ‘Black Star’. Inspiration für eine neue Magazinfotografie in den USA.” Kommunikation visuell. Das Bild als Forschungsgegenstand – Grundlagen und Perspektiven, edited by Thomas Knieper and Marion G. Müller, Herbert von Halem, 2001, pp. 240–249.

    Torosian, Michael. Black Star. The Ryerson University Historical Print Collection of the Black Star Publishing Company. Portfolio Selection and Chronicle of a New York Photo Agency. Lumiere Press, 2013.

    Vowinckel, Annette. “German (Jewish) Photojournalists in Exile. A Story of Networks and Success.” German History, vol. 31, no. 4, December 2013, pp. 473–496.

    Word Count: 331

  • Archives and Sources:

    Word Count: 16

  • Acknowledgements:

    My deepest thanks go to Phoebe Kornfeld, the granddaughter of Kurt Kornfeld, and Peter Stein, the son of Fred Stein, for providing me with information and archival material.

    Word Count: 28

  • Author:
    Helene Roth
  • Exile:

    New York, US (1935–1983).

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    Park Crescent Hotel, 150 Riverside Drive, New York City, (residence, 1935–1936); 30 Parcot Avenue, New Rochelle, New York (1936); 89 Eastchester Road, New Rochelle, New York (residence, 1936–1937); 94 Hillside Avenue, New Rochelle, New York (1937–1950); 81 Hilltop Avenue, New Rochelle, New York (1950–?); Riverdale, New York (residence, ?–1983); Graybar Building, 420 Lexington Avenue, Midtown Manhattan, New York City (workplace, 1936–1957); 305 East 47th Street,Tudor City, New York City, (workplace, 1957–1963).

  • Metropolis:
    New York
  • Helene Roth. "Ernest Mayer." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 14-09-2021.
  • Walter Sanders
    New York

    Walter Sanders was a German émigré photographer. In 1938 he arrived in New York, where he worked from 1939 until the end of his life for the Black Star agency and, from 1944, for Life magazine.

    Word Count: 33

    Kurt Safranski
    Picture AgentFounding MemberTeacherCartoonistPublisherIllustrator
    New York

    Kurt Safranski was one of the founding members of the Black Star photo agency, a teacher at the New School for Social Research and the author of photojournalistic articles and books.

    Word Count: 31

    Andreas Feininger
    New York

    Andreas Feininger, was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York with his wife Wysse Feininger in 1939. He started a lifelong career exploring the city's streets, working as a photojournalist and writing a large number of photography manuals.

    Word Count: 39

    Ruth Bernhard
    New York

    Ruth Bernhard was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1920s to the 1940s. Beside her series on female nudes, her place in the photography network, as well as in the New York queer scene, is unknown and understudied.

    Word Count: 43

    Fred Stein
    New York

    Always accompanied by his camera, the German émigré photographer Fred Stein discovered New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. His pictures provide an human and multifaceted view of the metropolis.

    Word Count: 31

    Tim Gidal
    PhotographerPublisherArt Historian
    New York

    Tim Gidal was a German-Jewish photographer, publisher and art historian emigrating in 1948 emigrated to New York. Besides his teaching career, he worked as a photojournalist and, along with his wife Sonia Gidal, published youth books.

    Word Count: 35

    Ruth Jacobi
    New York

    Ruth Jacobi was a German-speaking, Polish-born photographer who emigrated in 1935 to New York, where she opened a studio together with her sister Lotte Jacobi. She later had her own portrait studio.

    Word Count: 31

    Kurt Kornfeld
    PublisherPicture AgentFounding Member
    New York

    Kurt Kornfeld was a publisher and literary agent and a founding member of the Black Star photo agency in New York City after his emigration in 1936 to New York.

    Word Count: 29

    Carola Gregor
    New York

    The German émigré photographer Carola Gregor was an animal and child photographer and published some of her work in magazines and books. Today her work and life are almost forgotten.

    Word Count: 30

    New York
    New York

    In 1932, after her remigration to Vienna, the Austrian journalist Ann Tizia Leitich published New York, an account of her life and writing experiences started as an emigrant in New York in the 1920s.

    Word Count: 33

    Black Star Agency
    Photo Agency
    New York

    The German émigrés Kurt S(z)afranski, Ern(e)st Mayer and Kurt Kornfeld founded Black Star in 1936. The photo agency established was a well-run networking institution in New York.

    Word Count: 31

    Werner Wolff
    New York

    Werner Wolff was forced to leave Germany in 1936 due to his Jewish background and emigrated via Hamburg to New York, where he could follow his career as photographer and photojournalist.

    Word Count: 30

    Lilly Joss
    New York

    Lilly Joss was an émigré freelance photographer in New York. She worked for the Black Star photo agency and magazines and was also a portrait and theatre photographer.

    Word Count: 28

    Fritz Henle
    New York

    Fritz Henle was a German Jewish photographer who emigrated in 1936 to New York, where he worked as a photojournalist for various magazines. He also published several photobooks of his travels throughout North America and Asia.

    Word Count: 35

    Black Star Publishing Company London
    Photo Agency

    The 1936 New York-founded Black Star Publishing Company photo agency opened a European branch in London the same year in response to the high demand for foreign images in the U.S.

    Word Count: 31