Fred Stein has recorded the public face of the men of the Thirties and the cities where they once gathered to talk through the night. That age is over. Our decade is not a time of gatherings, conventions, congregations of all parties. As a very young man, Stein roamed all those camping grounds of the European intelligentsia. Rollei or Leica in hands, he shot swiftly and efficiently under the lights of the dais and the stage, and in the street itself.
Here are Malraux and Ehrenburg crouched in passionate debate at a Writer’s Congress in 1935. They are still in the great European tradition of men of letters who are men of politics too…though how different are their political roles to become! Here too is Romain Rolland looking so much like what the aged Frenchman of letters should look like…the look of Gide…fine hands, thin white rocky face, some kid of dark mantle always cloaking him.
Stein’s portfolio is a document of the spirit. For all through the Thirties the exodus was on and the unalterable exile came down like winter in 1939-40 when the last writers and artists of Europe who could or would, left the crematory. Stein photographed them in their ratty Paris hotels and, later, in their newly-founded American households. For some, work continued…Einstein, Chagall, Thomas Mann. For others, the direction of their lives was changed forever and they became silent or gazed at their toes. And while he caught their changing mood, Stein also looked at the cities through which they passed. Understandably, he has not drawn any clear connections between these men and their surroundings. Their sense of being alien separates them from any but an abstract idea of place. Like Koestler, they see Paris as a symbol of Western Civilization rather than as a home.
Paris has played such a role for most of these men, and, justly enough, Stein contributed many of his shots of Paris to a calendar for French War Relief in 1944. Then he turned to New York, the city in which he found himself. Fifth Avenue, a photo-story printed by Pantheon, and several New York calendars have been the result. When not at his commercial work (part of which is supplying prints from his library of contemporary portraits for Time, Fortune, and many publishers) he may be found in front of the New York Public Library waiting for a familiar or interesting face.
He has one guide to originality: “One must visualize all previous pictures of a subject and if possible avoid them.” He succeeds in doing this by a remarkable memory of what has been done before. He believes in a variety of means for making portraits but always the simplest lighting set-up. Indoors, a single flash suffices much of the time. At other times, daylight. Above all he believes in getting the picture quickly, for too much preparation may endanger the rapport with the sitter. And he delights, aesthetically, in one of the intrinsic qualities of the photograph, black against white. He cites the Italian film, a great record of this age, as the epitome of black and white force, gained through visual sense.