PHOTOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE - Fred Stein’s Portraits of Humanity

By Lynne Eodice

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.

Such was the photographic style of Fred Stein. Today, his son Peter recalls, “His purpose was to capture the personality of the person he was photographing.” Before photographing them, he learned about the person’s accomplishments, their work and even a little about their personality. “It wasn’t a photo with his imprint on it,” explains Peter. “It was a portrait of who they were.”

Albert Einstein, 1946

Albert Einstein, 1946

A Vast Body of Work

Anyone with the opportunity to see Stein’s prolific body of work would undoubtedly agree with his son. In addition to Einstein, he created over 1500 insightful portraits of such powerful individuals as Nikita Khrushchev, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hermann Hesse and Marc Chagall. Over the years his work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Look, and the New York Herald Tribune. Before his death in 1967 at age 58, he also lectured and held several one-man exhibitions. Books featuring Stein’s work include “German Portraits”; “Mer Licht” (More Light), a satiric book with the sayings of Goethe; “5th Avenue”; and “World Celebrities in 90 Photographic Portraits by Fred Stein.”

A pioneer of the small, handheld 35mm camera, Stein took on the role of observer in both his portraits and his street scenes of everyday life. He used natural light or very minimal auxiliary lighting, and avoided elaborate setups and dramatic effects. Stein was also a voracious reader. “When he wasn’t out photographing, he was reading,” recalls Peter.

A Compelling History

Stein’s history shaped his creativity to a great degree. Born in 1909 in Dresden, Germany, Fred Stein was the son of a rabbi and a religion teacher. As a teenager, he became active in socialist and anti-Nazi movements. He later attended Leipzig University where he quickly obtained a law degree, but was denied access to the German bar by the Nazi government for ”racial and political reasons.” As the threat of Fascism became more imminent, Stein fled to Paris in 1933 with his new wife, Liselotte, under the pretense of taking a honeymoon.

It was in Paris that Stein embarked on a lifelong love of photography, after purchasing his first Leica as a joint wedding gift with his wife. They were part of a circle of refugee artists and intellectuals, full of creative energy.

Germany declared war on France in 1939, and Stein was put in an internment camp near Paris. He was fortunate enough to escape nine months later, and made his way south, hiding in isolated farmhouses. He reunited with his wife and baby daughter after placing an ad in the personals column of a French paper using the pseudonym “Fritz Berger.” In 1941, the three boarded a ship after obtaining visas from the International Rescue Committee. Bound for New York City, they carried only their camera and some negatives.

Stein continued his photography in New York while his wife worked to support the family. Peter was born in New York. With a keen eye, Stein set about photographing city life from Fifth Avenue to Harlem. He became a member of a prestigious organization known as the Photo League, but resigned when he became disenchanted with the group’s pro-Communist philosophy.

Portraiture was Stein’s main source of income, and he was eventually commissioned to photograph many notable people. He loved to work when he wanted, independent of assignments. From the beginning, he used a 35mm Leica at a time when most other portrait photographers worked with larger-format cameras.

As his work became well-known, he enjoyed the freedom of photographing people and scenes that interested him, selling his work to publishers and photo editors of magazines, newspapers and books. He shot images for a calendar book of Paris and donated it to the French War Relief in 1943. “They purchased eight ambulances with the proceeds,” says Peter.

The Best Education

Stein was a great influence on his young son. “One of his haunts was the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” recalls Peter. “He used to take me there a lot.” Because Stein always had a darkroom set up in his living quarters, the young Peter grew up taking his own pictures and developing them in the family’s darkroom. In fact, the boy won second place in the National High School Kodak photo contest in 1958 and 1959, noting that “My father was my best education.” Today he makes his living as a cinematographer, and has been Director of Photography for feature films such as “Pet Sematary,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Reuben, Reuben,” and a recent PBS film, “A Midwife’s Tale.” He has plans to make a documentary film about his father.

“Warmth, humanity and love came through in his pictures,” says Peter. “Even though he came through some hard times, he found hope and beauty somehow to express in his work. He loved New York and Paris, and he really loved people.”