Wilhelm Willinger was an Austro-Hungarian Jewish photographer who is best known for his portraits of actors of the early silent film era in Berlin. He was born in Hungary on 9 April 1879 and worked as a photographer in Budapest between 1896 and 1900. From 1902 to 1918 he was based in Berlin at 8 Schwäbische Straße, while still maintaining a studio in Budapest.
He enlisted with the Royal Hungarian Honvéd in the First World War. During this time, he portrayed Austrian and German military leaders. In 1919, together with Hans Schnapper, he established a studio in Vienna at 28 Kärntnerstraße. Schnapper left the studio two years later, leaving Willinger the sole owner. It was a family business and his wife Margarete and son Laszlo worked alongside him in the studio. Eventually, Studio Willinger operated branches in Berlin, Vienna and Paris. At one point, Willinger’s studio was one of the largest in Vienna, employing 30 people.
Willinger specialised in role portraits of stage actors, scenes from plays and portraits and his work was published in various magazines, newspapers and books. In 1924 he established the Organization der Wiener Presse (Organisation of the Vienna Press) with other photographers. In 1930 he took over part of the company R. Lechner (Wilhelm Müller) and turned it into the Willinger & Lechner Austrian press pictures agency. Together with Leo Ernst and Friedrich Cesanek he also founded the distribution company Austrophot - Willinger, Ernst & Cesanek.
Willinger left Vienna in 1938 and emigrated to Shanghai, China, where from 1940 he ran the Willinger & Co Shanghai studio, based on Nanking Road. In Shanghai, he took a series of photos of the courses ORT ran for Jewish refugees [see images].
Wilhelm Willinger died on 29 January 1943 in Shanghai. His Vienna photo archive was confiscated by the Gestapo in March 1938 and was apparently later dispatched to the Reichspropagandamt [Reich Propaganda Agency] in Berlin. Its fate remains unknown. Willinger’s son, Laszlo, emigrated to the USA and became a famous Hollywood portrait photographer.