Fred Stein used a camera to show the humanity in the everyday world. Born in Germany in 1909, he became a brilliant law student and a committed anti-Nazi activist. After being denied admission to the German bar by the Nazi government for “racial and political reasons,” and seeing the implications of the Fascist threat beginning to materialize in earnest, Stein fled to Paris in 1933 under the pretext of taking a honeymoon.
In Paris he lived among expatriate artists and intellectuals; it was there he took up photography professionally, becoming a pioneer of the hand-held Leica. He began documenting life in the streets and taking intimate portraits of the people who defined intellectual life in the Europe of the Thirties. But when Germany declared war on France, Stein was put in an internment camp for enemy aliens near Paris. As the Nazis were entering the city, he managed to escape and made a harrowing journey to be reunited with his wife and infant daughter in Marseille. They fled on one of the last boats to leave France, taking only Stein’s Leica and negatives.
In New York, Stein became acquainted with and photographed writers, artists, scientists, politicians, and philosophers. A fascinating conversationalist with a deep interest in people, he was adept at making friends of subjects and capturing their essence on film. A ten-minute appointment became a two-hour visit with Albert Einstein, who was so involved in their conversation that he kept dismissing the interruptions of his schedule-conscious secretary. A portrait session with architect Le Corbusier became so engrossing, that as Le Corbusier was putting on his coat to leave for his next appointment, they realized they had yet to do the portrait; four photographs show Le Corbusier outside the house ready to leave.
An astute social observer, Stein also found limitless material in the street life of New York, from Harlem to Fifth Avenue; children at play were a favorite topic. The beauty and intuitive intelligence of his images and reportage garnered places for his work in newspapers, magazines, and books throughout the world. He died in 1967 at the age of fifty-eight.
“He was a true intellectual,” says Stein’s son Peter, who is a cinematographer. “He brought a real sense of humanity to his photographs. He saw people with love.” And like too many people who leave love as their legacy, Fred Stein received favorable critical attention, but the true historical and artistic importance of his work is only now gaining wide recognition.