B&W MAGAZINE - Fred Stein


by Richard Pitnick

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.

Born in Dresden, Germany, in 1909, Stein became active in socialist and anti-Nazi movements as a teenager. He went on to earn a law degree from Leipzig University, but because of his background was prevented from practicing law. Learning of his imminent arrest by the Nazis, Stein fled to Paris in 1933, where he immersed himself in the creative and expatriate community of the city and befriended fellow photographers Phillipe Halsmann and Robert Capa, whose girlfriend lived in Stein’s apartment as a boarder. Purchasing a Leic wedding present for hmself and his wife, Stein embarked on a professional career as a photographer, recording Parisian street scenes and taking portraits of such notable friends as Andre Malraux, Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt, and Willy Brandt, who would later become chancellor of Germany.

During his 30-year career, Stein would go on to photograph many of the most influential painters, writers, politicians and intellectuals of his era, including Herman Hesse, Bertolt Brecht, Vladimir Nabokov, Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer, Albert Einstein, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Stein’s Parisian work is marked by a deeply felt humanity that captures both the beauty and romanticism of that city, with a perceptiveness that registered the dark fate awaiting Europe with the rise of Fascism.

When Germany invaded France in 1940, Stein was placed in an internment camp for enemy aliens. He later escaped, and in 1941, along with his wife and baby daughter, caught one of the last ships to leave France heading for New York. In New York, Stein fell in with that city’s political and artistic circles, and became friendly with fellow photographers Robert Frank and Andre Kertesz.

Stein continued to pursue his freelance professional career in New York, becoming a member of the Photo League, working for the Black Star photo agency for a brief period, and publishing work in numerous books and in most of the major magazines of the day, including Time, Fortune and Life. Stein also produced a significant portfolio of images of New York street scenes, that, like his Paris work, captures the unique energy and beauty of that city while also examining the lives of the city’s less privileged residents.

Stein’s passing in 1967, at the age of 58, left a valuable photographic legacy that is now gaining a wider audience due to the efforts of his son, Peter, an accomplished cinematographer who has assembled a portfolio of his father’s work that captures the full scope of his talent.

“I always planned on doing something with my father’s archive,” says Peter, who estimates that his father left behind several thousand prints and negatives, including vintage prints that have now been made available to the collector market.

“Aside from the fact that his compositions are outstanding, my father’s choice of subject matter, his humanity, and his rapport with people was very warm and loving. He was a person of great humanity who wanted to help the common man.”

Stein’s work is included in the collections of the National Museum of American Art, the International Center of Photography, and the National Portrait Gallery. According to his son, discussions are underway for publication of a comprehensive monograph on Stein’s work.

The estate has produced limited edition prints with 350 prints in each edition (except for the famous Einstein portrait, which has 450). The photographs are all printed and archivally processed by a master printer under Peter Stein’s supervision and to his approval, and matched as closely as possible to his father’s vintage prints. The estate has also produced a numbered set of collector’s portfolios (75 in total). These are archival giclee prints on Orwell watercolor paper contained in a leatherbound portfolio box. Each portfolio contains 40 of the most important images of 1930’s Paris, 1940’s New York, as well as the Einstein and O’Keeffe portraits. The estate also maintains a website that features 150 different images.