Reframing the 1950s:

Poland and America through Photojournalist Lisa Larsen’s Lens

Patryk Babiracki
The article examines Lisa Larsen’s pioneering work as a photojournalist for Life Magazine in Poland, 1956-1957, contextualised by her experience as a Jewish exile from Germany in the 1930s. Reading her unpublished writings about Poland against the backdrop of her visual work reveals a woman who appreciated the ambiguity of photography and sought to shape the meaning of her work in a way that challenged the prevailing Cold War epistemologies of midcentury America, often espoused by Life and the Time/Life empire itself. As a woman, she was initially assigned entertainment and fashion work, but her drive to cover politics led her to US presidential campaigns, the Middle East, and the Bandung Conference of 1955. Despite her position as a woman in the world of men at a time when opportunities for professional success among women remained limited, no single full-length academic work on Larsen exists. Larsen left many extraordinary photos that document her extensive travels and experiences. In my article, I draw on her unpublished writings, as well as some published material and her photographs, to argue that through her writing about and photographic work in Poland, Larsen engaged in a subtle critique of the social relations in the United States.
Lisa Larsen; Poland; United States; Nazi Germany; cultural Cold War; photography; photo essay; Life Magazine; photojournalism; Jewish émigrés; émigré art; 1950s; women’s history; women photographers.



1956: First Takes

Rewind, Shoot: 1957

Double Exposures I: Gender Roles

Double Exposures II: The Ambiguity of Crowds

Last Frames




Suggested Citation


In its July 1, 1957 issue (vol. 43, no. 1), the popular US illustrated Life magazine ran an article titled "The U.S. Exhibit of Freedom, a Hit in Poland." Devoted to the Poznań International Trade Fair, the essay and the accompanying photographs perpetuated two narratives about communist Poland that would be familiar to readers in America. One was what I call the Romantic narrative: the story of Polish struggle for political freedom, heroism, and sacrifice, themes that defined Western conceptions of Poland for centuries. The Life photo depicting this narrative, taken by British businessman Peter Eisler, showed the demonstrators crossing the fair with the bloodstained flag in 1956, taken during the Poznań uprising of June 28 (Jastrząb, 126). The second and central story revolved around the historically tangled themes of East European backwardness and communist inefficiency in contrast to an idealised US version of modernity focused on consumption and consumer choice. Photographs by Lisa Larsen, a German-born, US-based photographer and the subject of this article illustrated that second narrative. Her series of images showed Polish visitors mesmerised by US exhibits, storming the door to the American pavilion, stretching out their hands to touch the samples that the Americans were handing out (Fig. 1). "Some longing looks toward a good life," read one subsection of the article. "The good life," the article’s author made clear, was being enjoyed by America's consumer society ("The US Exhibit," 20).1

Giving away frozen foods at the US exhibit, during the 1957 Poznań Fair (Lisa Larsen /

It’s not surprising that Life would tell this story. A popular illustrated weekly, it catered to the particular values and norms of America’s white middle class while addressing “the contradictions and anxieties about national identity in the United States that emerged following the global, social and political upheaval of World War II” (Bussard and Gresh 2020: 18). The magazine’s founder Henry Luce used Life to announce the dawn of the “American Century in 1941,” and relied on bold magazine photography to promote a vision of American exceptionalism tied to its geopolitical pre-eminence in the world (Bussard and Gresh 2020: 18; Swanberg 1972). Luce shaped Life into an instrument of the Cold War, using photography “as evidence, as witness, as counterpoint, as threats, as a spectacle, as a deterrent, and overall as a form of storytelling,” art historian Kristen Gresh has pointed out (Gresh 2020: 189). The magazine’s visual storytelling techniques that focused on faces effectively reduced complex events to simple and reassuring narratives (Panzer 2020: 54).

In the late 1950s, journal editors used Larsen’s photos to reinforce these well-known stories, but Larsen was more interested in employing photography to interrogate the surrounding world. She explored realities in communist Poland that went beyond the typical accounts about Polish heroism and East European backwardness. Larsen used her observations on Poland to question the prevailing norms of midcentury America.

Lisa Larsen’s Polish work serves as a starting point for imagining Larsen’s biography. She was a prolific and accomplished photographer who lived an adventurous, global life. Henry Luce called her “a leading citizen of the world.”2 Initially an outsider, she steadily made her way into New York’s cultural establishment. In a profession dominated by men and structured around the male gaze, she was one of Life’s few female photographers; unlike the other women, notably the famous Margaret Bourke-White, Larsen frequently photographed the most powerful politicians and celebrities, many of them men (Panzer 2020: 61; Flamiano 2020:170-179; Flamiano: 2018).3 By the 1950s, it was not uncommon for women to work as photographers. Gerda Taro, Ilse Bing, Dora Maar, Lee Miller shaped the European and American visual cultures through their pioneering photographs, but their names have all too often been forgotten and their roles – marginalised.4 Larsen's case is even more surprising, though, for despite her talent, charisma and contemporary recognition, few have reflected on her life and work.5 Although her life was short – she was five months short of her thirty-seventh birthday when she died of cancer in 1959 – and she valued her private life, an analysis of her work particularly in Poland is long overdue. Larsen’s drafts for an unpublished book, the bulk of which is devoted to her stay in Poland, constitutes my core archival source.6 I also relied on some records of Poland’s communist secret police, which kept Larsen under surveillance during her 1957 stay.

This essay also aims to contribute to the exchanges about the role of individuals in shaping cultural linkages between Eastern Europe and the West during the Cold War. Like numerous photographers and journalists, she broke down the boundaries of the Cold War through forging transnational networks and circulating images (Vowinckel 2017). Lisa Larsen’s case similarly enables us to question oversimplifications stemming from Cold War-era bi-polar politics. Her story also underscores the challenges that photographers faced in pursuing their assignments and visions across the Cold War divide, and the contestation that shifted the meanings of the circulating photographs. Additionally, much of the recent scholarship of Eastern European communism is premised on the discovery of the region as a mosaic of national modernities, distinct from both the Cold War-era discourses that framed countries like Poland as a West-to-be, often conflating these countries' pasts and possible futures with the trajectories of other communist states (Pence and Betts 2008; Reid and Crowley 2000; Bren and Neuburger 2012; Fidelis 2017). Though involved in Cold War institutions as a rising star of the American knowledge-producing elite, her “outsider” status as a recent immigrant and woman helped her retain a critical distance from American life, which shaped her sensibility as an attentive observer of people across the world, and of Eastern Europe in particular. Lisa Larsen was what Joseph Nye would call a “cultural interpreter” of soft power, someone who, as Marsha Siefert noted, “is willing to speak both languages, understand both cultures, in order to explain one to the other” (Siefert 2014). Yet unlike so many other “cultural interpreters” from the United States – some of them female, like the dancer Martha Graham, for instance – Larsen turned her critical eye on America (Phillips 2020: 29). In contrast to many American leftist intellectuals, Larsen idealised neither communism nor the USSR. Although she necessarily participated in political institutions, Larsen sought to develop a vision of the world that could not be easily subsumed into Cold War binaries or national particularities – a vision that can be understood by looking at Lisa Larsen’s life and work.

Numerous historians have painted a rosy picture of the relationship between émigré artists and their adopted homeland, the United States. “As the new champions of the world […] Americans needed a new self-image,” wrote Anthony Heilbut, adding that “émigré photographers captured all the traditional American characteristics –physical strength, forthright emotion, youthful energy – imbued with an iconic force that frequently filled the photographic frame” (Heilbut 1983: 216). But most of them, including Lisa Larsen, developed more complicated ties to their adopted homelands (Flamiano 2016: 7; Pitts 1995: 17). Larsen’s intertwined life stories as an immigrant to the United States and an American photographer in Europe can be productively gleaned through philosopher Vilém Flusser’s reflections on the creative effects of exile. Flusser proposed exile not as a source of victimhood, as it is commonly understood, but as of a form of “data processing” that enables the uprooted to organise the seeming chaos caused by novelty in their lives. Artists channel the intensity of that processing experience into creative activity, which can also help the natives of the land that welcomed him – or her – see their own reality in new ways, defamiliarise it, and even uncomfortably unsettle their perception of the world. For this to happen, “an exchange” must open up between the information that the expelled “has brought with him and an entire ocean with waves of information that toss around him in exile” (Flusser 2002, 108).7 Larsen, too, ostensibly “processed” her experiences abroad; her Polish assignments opened up new ways for thinking about America and, more broadly, Larsen’s aesthetic and social sensibilities of the 1950s can be tied to her experience of late 1930s Germany.

Lastly, Larsen’s story contributes to a conversation about the relationship between power and photography in the second half of the twentieth century. The compelling argument that photographic images misrepresent reality, fix hierarchies and naturalise inequalities has been made for over half century (Barthes 2013 [1957]; Brennen 2009: 71-81). "To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed," wrote Susan Sontag in her classic 1977 essay On Photography. "It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power" (Sontag 2008 [1977]: 4). Indeed, at the 1957 “Family of Man” exhibition in Moscow, Nigerian student Theophilus Neokonkwo destroyed several works by Nat Farbman that depicted half-naked, despairing Africans as social inferiors to the clothed, and more dignified Europeans and Americans (Tiefentale 2018). Yet other theorists have emphasised the ambiguity of photographs, and it’s that characteristic that seems distinctly operative in Larsen’s case (Bussard and Gresh 2020: 18). Larsen also contributed to the 1957 exhibition with a photograph of a Guatemalan mother. Larsen’s photographs invite one range of interpretations when viewed one by one, or in the context designed by American illustrated magazines, which is also why they were not out of place in articles celebrating America’s global triumphalism. But her images lend themselves to other readings when viewed in the context of Larsen’s broader oeuvre and the photographer’s own stories that retell her own experiences.


Around 1950, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took a portrait of Lisa Larsen against the blurry backdrop of Manhattan sky rises – perhaps near her apartment at 40 Park Avenue in New York (Fig. 2).

Portrait of Lisa Larsen, 1956 (Alfred Eistenstaedt /

Larsen, grinning, her eyes glowing, is looking directly at the camera, projecting confidence, playfulness and charm. For a biographer, the 1950s seem as clear as Larsen’s image on that photograph. Curiosity led her to follow people all over the world, between 1949, when she was hired as a contract photojournalist for Life magazine, and her untimely death in 1959. Before coming to Poland in late 1956, Larsen photographed the powerful and the famous from Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Eleanor Roosevelt, Josip Broz Tito to Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, as well as the wedding of Jackie Bouvier and John F. Kennedy. In the summer of 1956, upon the invitation of the Mongolian Ambassador to the USSR, Larsen went on an assignment to Outer Mongolia, the first American in a decade to be able to do so. In 1955, Larsen covered the famous Bandung Conference in Indonesia, the first meeting of the leaders of newly independent African and Asian states, subsequently trekking solo across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Smart, quick-witted and ambitious, Larsen was known among colleagues for her dedication to photography and her relentless hard work.8 In the last years of her life, Larsen earned several major American prizes in photojournalism. 9 She also made her name with her charisma and empathy, which enabled her to form meaningful relationships with her subjects. Larsen’s genuine interest in people allowed her to create individual and collective portraits that brought out their personalities and their psychological depth. Larsen came to prominence in the 1950s; yet much of what we know of her comes from what she chose to disclose in official, award-related interviews, from the impressions left on her acquaintances, and from her photographs.

Larsen’s pre-celebrity years seem more out of focus, like the New York streetscape in the background of Eisenstaedt’s portrait. We know that she was born Lisa Rothschild on 5 August, 1922 in Pforzheim, Germany.10 Many thought that Larsen was born in 1925 and she did not correct them. Later Lisa, her younger sister Gerty (born in 1925), their parents Cilly (short for Cäcilie, née Cohn) and Mayer lived in the newspaper district of Berlin at Lindenstrasse 60/61 and her mother ran an artificial flowers business (Saure 2020; Keil 2020).11 Lisa received her first camera, “an inexpensive Korelle Reflex” from her mother, who then “slowly furthered her daughter’s interest in photography until Lisa reached the Leica stage.”12 Lisa studied art photography at a private school in Berlin.13 Mayer Rothschild (Cilly called him by his middle name, Max) died in 1935, likely of ill health, though certainly amidst the growing violence against Jews.14 Cilly and her daughters fled to Holland sometime soon after the Night of the Broken Glass or Kristallnacht, the infamous mass anti-Semitic pogrom of November 9-10, 1938. One year later, on October 28, 1939, seventeen-year-old Lisa departed with her mother for the U.S. on S. S. Veendam, which sailed from Antwerp to New York (her sister Gerty would join them a few weeks later, after overcoming bureaucratic obstacles).15 In the travel documents, the seventeen-year-old Lisa lists her profession as “photographer.”

Lisa, it seems, consciously followed many German-Jewish photographers who came to the United States in the mid-1930s such as Alfred Eisenstaedt or Fritz Goro. It may be that Cilly encouraged Lisa’s photographic interests in Berlin in order to facilitate emigration from Nazi Germany and to give her daughter a better chance for a job abroad. Success stories of émigré photographers would have encouraged such thinking. Émigré photographers generally avoided restrictive work quotas, as they were entering an expanding job market in the new communication industries. In contrast to refugee journalists, the photographers confronted fewer language-related obstacles in their professional transition (Milton 1986: 279–293). Lisa Larsen travelled from Germany to the US only a moment after the photojournalistic format on which Life itself was based travelled from Germany and France to the United States. The men who introduced the photo essay to the US and Henry Luce himself were a group of German-Jewish émigrés Kurt Korff, Kurt Safransky, Kurt Kornfeld and Ernest Mayer (Smith 1983, 80). The last three had established the Black Star photo agency which brought together many German-Jewish émigré photographers in the US, and in which Larsen would take up her first job as a filing clerk (Smith 1983: 12).16 Some of Black Star's photographers such as Werner Bischof, Robert Capa and Ernst Haas had been earlier represented by the famous Magnum photo agency; the two agencies fiercely competed and in 1951 even merger discussions were taking place (Kornfeld 2021: 39, 48; Smith 1983: 126). The Black Star photographers shared several characteristics as a group. In C. Zoe Smith’s words, “most of them were Jews; most were well educated and well travelled; most came to photojournalism after studying other subjects and after being involved in other professions; most had worked for a variety of publications while moving around Europe; and most emigrated to the United States during the mid-1930s to pursue their careers and make a new life for themselves and their families” (Smith 1983: 132). Through their work, they raised the status of photojournalism in the United States within the few years that preceded Lisa’s flight from Berlin and stepping off U.S.S. Veendam (Smith 1983: 175). Lisa molded herself as part of that talented, German cosmopolitan cohort for US immigration officials and by potential employers in the US. Shaping her public perception around the formula created by her established predecessors may have been the reason why Larsen maintained publicly, though not fully truthfully, that she finished college at seventeen years of age.17

Lisa Larsen joined a cohort that defined a unique moment in the history of American photojournalism. Yet as a woman, she used tactics unavailable to men. Ed Thompson, the former managing editor of Life, said that Larsen "was the exact opposite of the precise photographers" such as Alfred Eisenstaedt or Fritz Goro. "She was very persistent,” he added. Smith, the interviewer, tried to clarify: “Aggressive?” Thompson replied: "She was not technically a very good photographer, but she made up for it in other ways." He recalled how she travelled on a Pullman berth with Vice President Alben Barclay on opposite berths and some photos included a self-portrait with her shoes off, Barclay tickling her foot.18 By comparing Larsen with the “precise” photographers, Thompson underscored a mix of determination, social skills and reliance on large quantities of camera film that defined her style of work.19

This experience of emigration from Germany and settling in the United States underscores two aspects of Larsen’s photographic interests. The first was fascination with crowds of people: American bargain shoppers and rally participants, immigrants during a naturalisation ceremony, Polish participants in a Catholic mass, crowds cheering on the streets at the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, audiences transfixed by political speakers. Crowds held an aesthetic appeal for Larsen – as some have noted, the photos Larsen took of the multitudes often capture an interesting interplay between the anonymous collectivity and emotional intimacy that she found on the faces of crowd members. Implying Larsen's contribution to the aesthetics of photography, Ronk noted that she found "a way to make pictures of crowds that both captured the energy of multitudes (and smaller gatherings) while making sure that individual faces weren't lost in the mix" (Ronk 2013). But Larsen’s visual attention to crowds had deeper roots in her fascination with their psychological dynamics, which tested the participants’ sense of themselves as individuals and roles as autonomous agents making rational decisions. During the Cold War, social scientists took up the study of crowds partly out of concern about the power of communism. Larsen’s fascination with crowds was surely shaped by her experience of growing up in Berlin during the rise of Hitler, and an upsurge of violent mass politics that featured parades and pogroms against Jews. If there was one single event that forced the Rothschilds to leave Germany, it was the Kristallnacht. Publicly, Larsen said little about her childhood in Germany, but a short note in her book manuscript reveals the emotional distance that separated her from the country of her birth. Scolded in German by the Polish guard at a banquet for Poland’s and USSR’s top brass in 1957, she commented, “somehow swearing always sounds worse to me in German than in any other language except Russian.” The incident made her “feel defeated for the first time that day,” and the exclusive picture she was hoping to take “was no longer worth it.”20 Interestingly, the incident did little to mar her opinions about Poland, which she viewed sympathetically.

Second, emigration forced Larsen to experience the layered processes of leaving behind something significant to her and the discovery of something new; of camouflage and reinvention of oneself, all of it in adolescence, a crucial period in anyone’s life. Could it be that these overlapping experiences gave the young Lisa Rothschild a distance not only from American society, but from the idea that any society is somehow natural and fixed, by showing her how arbitrary social values, mores and rituals can be? Larsen once told Herbert Keppler: “I dislike anything superficial and I especially dislike superficial relationships" (Keppler 1954: 43). Is it possible that, simultaneously, her passage and her transformation, made her aware of the fact that every human face may be a façade behind which lay deeper, more complicated and potentially more interesting truths? The media theorist Vilém Flusser observed that “the transcendence in which the expelled finds himself causes everything around him and in him to appear provisory, transitory” (Flusser 2020: 106). In Larsen’s case, pursuit of depth was driven by her apparent suspicion of first impressions, which she found antithetical to truth. And her own sense of transcendence, I suggest, prevented Larsen from fully identifying with 1950s America, even though she worked for a journal that embodied the values of her adopted homeland more than any other at that time. But she came to the US as an adolescent, without many frameworks for comparison that would guide her in her professional life. She found some opportunities in the late 1950s in Poland, at a time that coincided with the onset of her terminal disease.

1956: First Takes

Larsen reflected on her experiences in Poland more than in any other place outside of the United States. She first came to Poland for almost two months shortly after “the October revolution,” of 1956, events which elevated Władysław Gomułka to the leadership of the communist party. She took on the project "brimming with curiosity to find out for myself, what happened to a Communist country in ferment." But she also acknowledged in her draft book that she "was filled with apprehension."21 It was a good time for a journalist like Larsen to come to Poland. The political transition in Poland and in the USSR produced excitement and anticipation about the future. The Poles, who had been isolated from the world during Stalinism, welcomed Westerners. The Polish illustrated weekly Świat (World), which had been set up based on Life magazine’s photojournalistic formula in 1951, was now free to operate with minimal propagandistic constraints (Wach 2017). The kind of humanistic photography that Life published and Larsen practiced (differences between them notwithstanding), epitomised a break with Stalinist orthodoxy.

At first glance, Larsen’s first registered impressions of Poland differed little from Life's familiar stories about the shoddy communist economy. She thought in images, and images of want struck her upon arrival in the capital, when the porter who carried her bags from the airport terminal to the bus asked if she could pay him in American cigarettes. "Not since the postwar years and my travels to Finland and Italy had I been asked for American cigarettes, at that time a more welcome tip than currency, and always a revealing indication of a low standard of living," she wrote, recalling how the crowd on the bus, with some amusement, watched her dig out a few packs from the bottom of her suitcase.22

Larsen talked about everyday hardships to ordinary Poles and photographed them. Larsen spent much time with young Poles, thanks to the connections of Jacek, her interpreter. Once she followed him into his dorm room, which he shared with other students of English philology. They all seemed malnourished, but ready to laugh at their predicament. "Wait till you see, what they serve us for dinner," one student told Larsen and invited her to the dorm's dining hall. Larsen followed Jacek "to the dining room basement, a dimly illuminated room, where several students consumed their evening meal consisting of this mealy, brown soup." The boys announced that they called the concoction "Auschwitz 1944."23 This was ghastly humour; what Larsen appreciated was that the young Poles could find distance between themselves and their own misery.

As was her forté, she also engaged easily with the elites. She found Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz to be "a charming man, simple, human and attractive." As she spoke to him about Poland's hardships, the atmosphere was relaxed, and Larsen "felt completely at ease, asking the Premier to act and be himself, so I could photograph him that way."24 She later met Cyrankiewicz and his wife, actress Nina Andrycz in their small apartment. The three talked in German and French about Cyrankiewicz's books and Andrycz's acting career, and about travel, something that Larsen's interviewees liked but hoped one day to do more. Larsen asked Cyrankiewicz about his other hopes. "We have a hard road ahead of us, especially economic hardships and many serious problems remained to be solved," he said. And then he clarified: "these problems include loans and credits from the West, a complete reshaping and decentralizing of Poland's economy, the safeguarding of her [Poland's] independence and relationship to the Soviet Union, as well as to the West." Larsen asked the couple what they enjoyed doing together in their spare time, and Cyrankiewicz told her that he liked to see Andrycz rehearse on stage; they also listened to music and read books. Larsen took a photo of Cyrankiewicz and Andrycz reading together (Fig. 3). "This intimate photograph later made history in Poland," she wrote.25