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Werner Wolff

  • 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.
  • Given name:
  • Last name:
  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Mannheim (DE)
  • Date of Death:
  • Place of Death:
    New York City (US)
  • Profession:
  • Introduction:

    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

  • Signature Image:
    Lotte Jacobi, Werner Wolff, 1943, New York (© 2021. University of New Hampshire).
  • Content:

    Trained in photography in Mannheim, Werner Wolff found work as a lab technician in the darkroom at the photo agency PIX and enrolled in classes at the New York Institute for Photography. In 1938, he partnered with Walter Brockmann and other colleagues at PIX to open his own photo agency. Camera Features was located at 114 West 16th Street (later at 31 West 56th Street). In his autobiography, Werner Wolff wrote that the agency “was only moderately successful financially but gave [him] a start with some of the major magazines such as Life, Time, Mademoiselle” (Werner Wolff Archive, AG02.2009.0297:211a/b).

    Through Camera Features, a photo series on the voice training of Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt was published in Life magazine (13 March, 1939). Wolff's natural and informal photographs portray the First Lady during her lessons in the New York studio of her teacher Elisabeth von Hesse, who was employed at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (Life, 13 March, 1939, pp. 6-9). Correspondence from the Werner Wolff archives shows that he photographed Roosevelt for Camera Features on several more occasions over the years.

    In the 13 March issue of Life, Wolff also appeared under the category of “Life’s Pictures”, which featured a different Life photographer in each issue. The featured portrait of Wolff was shot by the émigré photographer Otto F. Hess and shows Wolff handling a miniature camera. Germany played an important role in the development of the 35mm camera in the 1920s. The camera's small size and weight made it easy to carry around and use – a technical boon for photojournalists and amateur photographers alike. Also the émigré photographer Lotte Jacobi made a portrait of him.

    By 1944, Wolff was working as a correspondent for the US Army Signal Corps, where he was then hired as photographer and photography editor for Yank, the Army weekly magazine. While stationed in Italy, he documented for Yank the battles on the River Po and photographed Rome, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Verona, Siena and Venice. With the defeat of Germany, Wolff was one of the first to photograph Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. He also experienced the destructive consequences of war at a more personal level when his home town of Mannheim, where he was staying at the time, was reduced to ruins. His huge range of photographs and a collection of Yank magazines are today archived at the Ryerson Image Center.

    In 1943, Wolff was naturalised as a US citizen and in 1945 returned to New York from military service. In the same year, he moved with his wife Alice Eckstein (whom he married in 1941) to Bleecker Street, where he was to live for the rest of his life. He also embarked at the same time on his long career as a photojournalist with the Black Star Agency. Howard Chapnick, who was head of Black Star from 1963 to 1990, rated Werner Wolff as an excellent technical photographer who could adapt to all kind of assignments. In his book Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism, Chapnick listed him among the twenty-nine photographers who had left a lasting mark on the agency and had been particularly valued as photojournalists. “His camera was a communicative tool that spoke directly to the viewer without nuance and ambiguity.” (Chapnick 1994, 161) Wolff's New York assignments ranged from reportages on the internment camp on Ellis Island (1949) to the placement of the television antenna on the Empire State Building (1946), for which he was hoisted in a bosuns’s chair to capture the spectacular views of the tower and the city below. For some of his reportage he personally authored the text and selected from his contact sheets the images he wanted used. In addition to his photojournalistic reportages, Wolff was also skilled at portraits and produced a series of photographs of politicians while accompanying Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy on overseas tours. Wolff was also responsible for one of the rare photographs of Kurt Safranski, one of the founders of Black Star, taken during a class at the New School for Social Research in the 1950s.

    After his death in 2002, Wolff's photographs passed into the care of his family, who donated them intact, along with archival material (contact sheets, negatives, photographs, publication information, correspondence, epherma) to the Ryerson Image Center, where the Black Star Photographic Collection is kept. The work of this eminent photojournalist can now be enjoyed by the general public.

    Word Count: 723

  • Media:
    “Speaking of Pictures. Mrs. Roosevelt Takes Voice Lessons.” Life, 13 March 1939, pp. 6–9 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Agreement between Black Star and Werner Wolff, 1947 (The Family of Werner Wolff © Ryerson Image Center).
    Camera Features stamp (The Family of Werner Wolff © Ryerson Image Center).
    Contact sheets for reportage on Empire State Building by Werner Wolff, 1946 (The Family of Werner Wolff © Ryerson Image Center).
    Rear side of contact sheets for reportage on Empire State Building by Werner Wolff, 1946 (The Family of Werner Wolff © Ryerson Image Center).
    Text for reportage on Empire State Building, written by Werner Wolff, 1946 (The Family of Werner Wolff © Ryerson Image Center).
    List of images and description for reportage on Empire State Building, written by Werner Wolff, 1946 (The Family of Werner Wolff © Ryerson Image Center).
    “Daredevil at Work” reportage by Werner Wolff in Popular Photography, September 1946, p. 39 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Werner Wolff, K.S. Safranski’s Class in Pictorial Journalism, 1950 (New School for Research Archive, Photograph Collection © Steven Wolff).
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Chapnick, Ben. Truth Needs No Ally. Inside Photojournalism. University of Missouri Press, 1994.  

    Goldsmith, Arthur. The photography Game. What is and how to play it. Viking Press, 1971.

    Manco, Sara L. Finding Wolff: Intellectually Arranging the Werner Wolff Fonds at the Ryerson Image Centre (master thesis, Ryerson Image Center, Toronto, 2012), Paper 1264.

    Ream, Tim. The Life Of Werner Wolff: An Analysis Of Werner Wolff’s Contributions To Life Magazine (master thesis). Ryerson University, Toronto, 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.

    Word Count: 90

  • Archives and Sources:

    Word Count: 9

  • Acknowledgements:

    My deepest thanks go to Steven Wolff for providing me with information on his father Werner Wolff as well as his permission to use the images.

    Word Count: 26

  • Author:
    Helene Roth
  • Exile:

    New York City, US (1936-1944); New York City, US (1945-2002).

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    397 Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, New York City (residence, 1946–2002); 420 Lexington Avenue, Black Star Photo Agency, Midtown Manhattan, New York (workplace, 1943–2002).

  • Metropolis:
    New York
  • Helene Roth. "Werner Wolff." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 03-05-2022.
  • 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

    Erika Stone
    New York

    Erika Stone is a German émigré, who moved to New York with her parents and sister in December 1936, at the age of 12. She went on to carve out a career as photographer.

    Word Count: 32

    Lisette Model
    New York

    Lisette Model was an Austrian-born photographer who lived in New York with her husband Evsa Model after emigrating from France. Her street photographs capturing the curiosities of everyday life quickly caught the interest of museums and magazines.

    Word Count: 37

    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

    Charles Leirens
    New York

    Charles Leirens was a Belgian-born musician and photographer who emigrated to New York in 1941. While publishing two books on Belgian music, he also gave courses in musicology and photography at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 36

    Rolf Tietgens
    New York

    Rolf Tietgens was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York in 1938. Although, in the course of his photographic career, his artistic and surrealist images were published and shown at exhibitions, his work, today, is very little known.

    Word Count: 39

    Lotte Jacobi
    New York

    In October 1935 the German émigré photographer Lotte Jacobi, together with her sister Ruth Jacobi, opened a photo studio on 57th Street. The two sisters had to leave their parents' photo studio in Berlin in the 1930s and emigrated to New York.

    Word Count: 41

    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

    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

    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

    Ernest Mayer
    Picture AgentFounding MemberPublisher
    New York

    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

    Trude Fleischmann
    New York

    Trude Fleischmann was an Austrian-Jewish portrait and dance photographer who emigrated in 1939 to New York, where she opened a studio in Midtown Manhattan with the photographer Frank Elmer.

    Word Count: 28

    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

    PIX Publishing Inc.
    Photo Agency
    New York

    PIX Publishing Inc. was a photo agency founded in New York in 1935 by photo agent Leon Daniel and Celia Kutschuk, together with German émigré photographers Alfred Eisenstaedt and George Karger.

    Word Count: 30

    New School for Social Research
    Academy/Art SchoolPhoto SchoolUniversity / Higher Education Institute / Research Institute
    New York

    During the 1940s and 1950s emigrated graphic designers and photographers, along with artists and intellectuals, were given the opportunity to held lectures and workshops at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 31

    Camera Features
    Photo Agency
    New York

    Camera Features was a photo agency founded by the photographer Werner Wolff and other colleagues of the photo agency PIX.

    Word Count: 20

    Photo Supplier
    New York

    Spiratone was a photo company and photo supplier founded in 1941 by the Austrian émigré family Hans (1888–1944) and Paula Spira (?–?) and their son Fred Spira (1924–2007).

    Word Count: 24