THE NEW YORK TIMES - A Bygone Era of Big City Life

  By Sarah Moroz 

“Nun”  New York, 1942      Estate of Fred Stein

“Nun”  New York, 1942      Estate of Fred Stein

“Mehr Licht” — more light — were Goethe’s famous last words. That deathbed declaration was also the title of Fred Stein’s book, featuring images taken along the streets of Paris and New York, which was published posthumously. What could be more fitting?

The German photographer’s oeuvre has been largely overlooked, but more light is being shed on his work in an exhibition at the Maison Doisneau, just outside Paris, featuring Mr. Stein’s black-and-white images taken on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was born in 1909 to a Jewish family in Dresden, where he developed an early interest in politics and became an anti-Nazi activist. He studied law in Leipzig but was denied admission to the German bar because of anti-Semitism. In 1933, he married Liselotte Salzburg, known as Lilo, and the two fled their native Germany for Paris under the guise of a honeymoon, from which they never returned.

Although Mr. Stein spoke impeccable French, he couldn’t practice law in the French system either. Instead, he reinvented himself as a photographer, buying a 35mm Leica and opening Studio Stein (where the bathroom doubled as the darkroom). He photographed Parisian street scenes: a capped chauffeur ambushed by two inquisitive small dogs; a close-up of a woman asleep in a park with an unlit cigarette in hand; a couple embracing under lamplight. He also documented more politically-charged realities, like the Popular Front movement. In 1939, he was interned in a camp, but thanks to the International Rescue Committee managed to escape France along with his wife and infant daughter. They headed to New York via Marseilles on the S.S. Winnipeg, the Leica and some negatives in tow.

“Man in Pushcart”  New York, 1944  Estate of Fred Stein

“Man in Pushcart”  New York, 1944  Estate of Fred Stein

In New York City, Mr. Stein once again explored a new metropolis, documenting Little Italy, Chinatown, African-American life in Harlem and Jewish communities in Brooklyn. He photographed children splashing water along the sidewalk’s edge; a woman typing al fresco in Central Park; a shoeshine boy napping; an evangelist half-hidden by his all-caps doomsday sign “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NO, NOT ONE.”

Despite hardships Mr. Stein endured, his son, Peter, noted simply: “He was an optimist. … His images leave you feeling uplifted.” His work has a humanist gaze, tinged with a sly sense of humor, a faith in community and joie de vivre. Marianne Rosenberg, whose gallery, Rosenberg & Co., represents his estate in New York, was moved by his “genuine tender, gentle touch” and described his non-portrait work as “deeper, richer and broader than just photographs of street scenes.” Cynthia Young, a curator at the International Center of Photography who reviewed the Stein archive, agreed: “Like many photographers, Stein was interested in people and how people survive, what amuses them. It is this curiosity in people that feeds them.”

Mr. Stein generally worked without assignment, shooting only what interested him. He often showed up with a press pass and a camera to conferences held at the German consulate, PEN, and the United Nations. He would do portraits of speakers on the spot, and then offer his work to publishers for book jackets, or photo editors at magazines. “He made a terrible living,” his son said. His wife, a college professor, supported the family and assisted her husband in the darkroom.

“Chez” Paris, 1934                                                         Estate of Fred Stein

“Chez” Paris, 1934                                                         Estate of Fred Stein

At the end of the 1940s, Mr. Stein got off the streets and finally opened a portrait studio, where he photographed writers, artists, scientists and philosophers, including direct requests from Norman Mailer, Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall. His portrait session with Albert Einstein — arranged because Einstein’s assistant was the photographer’s classmate in Germany — was supposed to last 10 minutes. It took two hours: Their conversation was said to have been peppered with politics and dirty jokes in German. Similarly, with Le Corbusier, the two spoke so long that Mr. Stein took the architect’s portrait only as he was leaving the shoot.

For all the big names he photographed, he remained at the margins. His archives of negatives, contact sheets and prints were kept in shoeboxes and largely forgotten after his death — at 58 — in 1967. His son has spent his own retirement poring over them and is making a documentary about his father. Some 40 prints were shown in 1995 in an exhibition at the International Center of Photography, “Fred Stein’s New York,” and a larger show was at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, “In an Instant: Photographs by Fred Stein,” in 2013.

“Fountain”  Paris 1935   Estate of Fred Stein

“Fountain”  Paris 1935   Estate of Fred Stein

Today Mr. Stein’s photographs provide a record of the everyday pageantry of 1940s New York and Paris between the wars, portrayals of a bygone era of big city life. In his time, photographers were more often seen as technicians rather than artists. However, his own consideration of the medium was ahead of the curve: He once gave a lecture at the New York Public Library titled: “Is Photography Art?”

“It is remarkable that Stein chose the purist’s route in his photography,” Ms. Rosenberg noted. “Stein was trying to capture people and the essence of their lives; in so doing, he could not avoid picking up in his images the events and conditions which formed the universe inhabited by his subjects.”

“Fred Stein, Paris-New York” is on view through Sept. 24 at La maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau in the Paris suburb, Gentilly

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        We were staying at the Warwick Hotel at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 54th, a charming old hotel built in 1926 by William Randolph Hearst for his Hollywood friends whose photos now cover the stairwells and hallways.  It was mid-December, on the lip of Christmas, and the city was in a festive mood. I had arranged to meet Peter Stein and his wife Dawn Freer for lunch.  Stein is a cinematographer. He has shot over 50 films, T.V. movies, and documentaries and teaches at the Graduate Film School of NYU.  His wife is an editor and scriptwriter.  But we weren’t getting together to talk about film. We were meeting to talk about Peter’s father. 

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June 7, 2012

Somehow the legacy of this photographer is only now on its way to gaining the true recognition it deserves. We need not look at many works to realize their quality, their belonging to the time and place of the artist and his contemporaries. Perhaps it was the era and Stein's need to keep on the move, to reinvent and rebuild himself that worked against his earlier establishment. Born in Dresden, Stein studied law but the Nazi Government denied him admission to the bar. Stein and his wife left Germany in 1933 claiming to be on honeymoon. They traveled to Paris where Stein began taking photographs with the Leica they bought as a joint wedding present.

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June 1, 2012

The career of Fred Stein (1909-1967) illustrates how easily a talented photographer can be written out of history. Born in Dresden, Germany, Mr. Stein belonged to the generation that documented trouble in Europe with hand-held cameras (in his case, a Leica) during the 1930s. Fleeing Leipzig for Paris in 1933 and France for the U.S. in 1941, he found a home with the Photo League in New York and established a successful studio practice here, specializing in portraiture.

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April 8, 2012

The lawyer-turned-photographer—who fled Germany in the nineteen-thirties, moving first to Paris and then to New York—was easily overshadowed by such contemporaries as André Kertész, Lisette Model, and Helen Levitt. But this selection of vintage black-and-white prints makes a strong case for reëvaluating the work, much of which could be mistaken for that of his more famous peers. 

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November 18, 2011

The years 35/37 : avant-garde photographers are reunited for an exhibition at the legendary Pléiade gallery: Brassaï, Man Ray, André Kertesz, Henri Cartier- Bresson and… Fred Stein. An unknown. Yet this is a photographer who, as early as 1933, fled Germany and befriended Capa and Gerda Taro, and was never without his Leica. He lived, worked, and shared the intimacy of those who were, and remain the greatest intellectuals, thinkers, artists, poets, musicians and writers of the 20th century. They also represented moral consciousness, demonstrating their refusal of a world where dark clouds of intolerance and fascism were forming over Europe.

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THE NEW YORK TIMES - Art Reviews

January 18, 2004

Fred Stein’s black-and-white photographs deal with remembrance. Mr. Stein fled Nazi Germany – first to Paris in 1933 and then, in 1941, to New York. He viewed both cities with an outsider’s fascination and curiosity, as well as a deeply humanistic interest in urban life. Like all great street photographers, he interpreted as he observed.

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B&W MAGAZINE - Fred Stein

October, 2003

Broader artistic recognition eluded Fred Stein during his accomplished but relatively short career as a freelance documentary photographer and photojournalist. But a series of recent photography exhibitions in New York, Spain and France, and the release of a limited edition portfolio of Stein’s work, has brought a new appreciation for his substantial achievement as an artist and chronicler of his times. A pioneer in the use of 35mm reportage, Stein transformed his life experiences and political idealism into a compelling and comprehensive visual record of European and American society from the rise of Fascism and Nazi Germany to the aftermath of World War II.

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LENSWORK MAGAZINE - The Fred Stein Story

August, 2003

Fred Stein was born on July 3, 1909 in Dresden, Germany. His father (who died when Stein was only six years old) was a rabbi, and his mother was a religion teacher. An independent thinker, Stein became active in socialist and anti-Nazi movements as a teenager. He joined the Socialist Workers’ Party, a non-Communist splinter group of the Social Democrats. He lectured and rode around on his bike distributing anti-Nazi literature. Stein was a brilliant student full of humanist ideals, attending Leipzig University to study law. He obtained his law degree in an impressively short time, but was denied admission to the German bar by the Nazi government for “racial and political reasons.”

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ARTNEWS - International Reviews: Fred Stein

June, 2003

Fred Stein knew the demands of the photojournalist’s art. “One moment is all you have,” he wrote. And as this exhibition of vintage and modern prints of 1930s Paris and 1940s New York vividly demonstrated, Stein had a rare ability to capture that moment.

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December 19, 1999

Like all good photojournalists, Fred Stein (1909-1967) had an eye for intriguing detail and a knack for capturing the revealing moment. But more important, he combined a documentarian’s acumen with an artist’s visual sensibility. This selection of his vintage prints concentrates on the 1930’s, when he began using a hand-held Leica to record the street life of Paris, and the 1940’s in New York, where he settled during World War II.

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THE NEW YORK TIMES - Art Reviews

November 29, 1998

When the Dresden-born photographer Fred Stein (1909-1967) bought his Leica in 1933, he saw the potential for the new, hand-held equipment to facilitate the recording of momentary effects. The purchase coincided with his move to Paris, where, until his departure for New York in 1941, he concentrated on the serendipitous discoveries of the street that seem so memorable.

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PHOTOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE - Fred Stein’s Portraits of Humanity

1998

In 1946, photographer Fred Stein had an opportunity to meet with Albert Einstein, and was allotted 10 minutes to capture the notable physicist on film. However, the minutes turned into two hours as the men discussed art, politics, religion and other issues of the day. Because he was engaged in conversation – and not posed - Einstein’s thoughtfulness is revealed in the resulting images, giving us a glimpse of the great mind at work.

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SHUTTERBUG MAGAZINE - Time’s Witness

April, 1998

“He died too young, too early. If he had lived another 20 years, he would now be more recognized.” Peter Stein is talking about his father, Fred, whose documentary photographs captured poignant moments in the street life of two of the world’s great cities, and whose portraits sought to reveal the personalities of a number of the artists, writers and politicians of his time.

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