LENSWORK MAGAZINE - The Fred Stein Story

By Maureen Gallagher

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.”

Under the deepening shadow of fascism, Germany was becoming an increasingly hostile environment. In August 1933, at the age of 24, Stein married Liselotte “Lilo” Salzburg, who was the daughter of an eminent Jewish physician. As they entered the public building where they would be married, the guards greeted them with “Heil Hitler” salutes. Stein’s closest friend had fled to Paris, and urged them to follow. After the arrest of close friends, and learning that the SS was making inquiries about him, Fred and Lilo fled to Paris under the pretext of taking a honeymoon trip. There they lived among a circle of expatriate artists and intellectuals.

 Refugee, France 1936

Refugee, France 1936

Paris in the 1930s

Paris in the 1930s was a vivid time for these expatriates. The Steins were at the center of a group of young socialists, thinkers and artists. They sheltered refugees in their house and cooked huge meals to help feed their friends. Even Robert Capa’s girlfriend, Gerda Taro, lived as a boarder with the Steins. Disenfranchised from a career of law in Germany, Stein took up photography and began documenting the street life of Paris. At the time, Leica had just introduced a small, hand-held camera – greatly altering the mobility and ease of such work. The new Leica suited Stein’s interests perfectly, and he worked as a professional photographer pioneering this format with the Leica that he and Lilo had purchased as a joint wedding present. Lilo, who came from an aristocratic background, worked as his darkroom assistant and held odd jobs to make ends meet. He set up a studio and made portraits, photographing many of his acquaintances and friends, including Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Koestler, Andre Malraux, and Willy Brandt.

Stein’s humanitarianism broadened the scope of his art; his street scenes are a poignant record of life in Paris. The Socialist Workers’ Party, composed mostly of European immigrants, reconvened. While many turned to Russia and Communism as an alternative to Hitler, Stein was fervently anti-Communist, believing – as he would throughout his life – in the rights of the individual.When France declared war on Germany in 1939, Stein was put in an internment camp for enemy aliens near Paris.

Nine months later, in the confusion of the Nazis’ approach to Paris, Stein escaped and made his way south, hiding in isolated farmhouses. He sent word through underground channels to Lilo (who was alone in now-occupied Paris with their one year old baby girl, Ruth) to meet him in Toulouse. 

Carrying only a suitcase with some negatives and prints, she posed as a French national, bluffed her way through German red tape, obtained a safe conduct pass, and was reunited with Stein in Toulouse, where they hid in a chicken house. They made their way to Marseilles by hiding in the bathrooms of trains; in Marseilles they obtained danger visas through the International Rescue Committee and the President’s Advisory Committee.

On May 7, 1941, the three boarded the S.S. Winnipeg – one of the last boats to leave France. Stein brought with him his photographic record of life in Paris in the 1930s; the bulk of the pictures considered politically dangerous (such as those taken at political rallies) were sent to an archive in Holland for safekeeping. The archive was later bombed and the pictures were destroyed.

New York in the 1940s

In the freedom of New York, Stein continued his photography while Lilo arranged their life so that he was able to pursue his art. She believed in his genius, and worked at various jobs to ensure a steady income for the family, ran the household, and went to school at night. Their son Peter was born in New York.

The imperative of Stein’s active interest in politics eased. He had more time to devote to his intellectual and artistic pursuits. New York was a vibrant center of culture, and Stein seized the opportunity. He read extensively and made acquaintances with writers, artists, scientists, politicians and philosophers. This wide circle of contacts enabled him to meet the people he wished to photograph; when he did not have a personal introduction he would photograph his subjects, documentary-style, at public appearances. Notable portraits from this period include the well-known photographs of Albert Einstein, Carl Sandburg, Thomas Mann, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Now a mature artist with experience and perspective, Stein was also a compassionate social observer, walking through the streets of New York, documenting life from Fifth Avenue to Harlem. Meanwhile, Lilo worked as his retoucher and a nursery school teacher, attending college at night. (She went on to earn a PhD in German literature, and to become a college professor.)

From the first, Stein worked with a 35mm Leica (in fact, the first model ever produced) while most other portrait photographers worked with large studio cameras. Later he added the small-format Rolleiflex. He enjoyed working without assignment, prizing the freedom of answering only to his aesthetic standards. He would then offer his work to publishers and photo editors of magazines and newspapers. He was a member of the Photo League for a few years, until he became disenchanted with their pro-Communist sympathies.

Stein died in 1967 at the age of fifty-eight – only a decade or so before modern medicine could have resolved the same genetic kidney problem that caused his own father’s early death.

Though not a self-promoter, his portraits and reportage had appeared in newspapers, magazines and books throughout the world. He gave lectures and had several books published. His portrait of Albert Einstein is his most famous picture: an iconic image of a great soul. His son, Peter, has preserved the entire collection of negatives and original prints.

Just 23 years old when his father died, Peter recalls fondly how his father would take him to museums as a boy. Father would teach son, and together they would study the composition and lighting in photographs and paintings. After college and graduate school Peter decided on a career in film. His eye for composition and lighting enabled him to become a skilled camera operator, and he quickly became a Director of Photography. He has shot nearly 40 feature films, TV movies, and documentaries, and is a member of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC).

Peter Stein is handing down the love of creative vision to his 17 year-old daughter, Kate. Just as he and his father did, Peter and Kate take pictures together – then compare their results – just to see how each of them sees the world. (His 12 year-old son, Nicholas, has other aspirations for the time being: he wants to play baseball for the New York Yankees.)

And just as his parents shared the creative photographic life, Peter and his wife, Dawn Freer (a film editor) share the film-making life. More than 60 years after Fred and Lilo made the perilous journey to New York City with a suitcase full of negatives and prints, Peter continues to pursue the life of creative vision. While he quit making feature films so he could have more time with his family, he teaches at New York University’s Graduate Film School, along with shooting commercials and documentaries.

Peter Stein and his family make their home just outside New York City.