By Barry Tannenbaum
“He died too young, too early. If he had lived another 20 years, he would now be more recognized.”
Peter Stein is talking about his father, Fred, whose documentary photographs captured poignant moments in the street life of two of the world’s great cities, and whose portraits sought to reveal the personalities of a number of the artists, writers and politicians of his time.
Peter Stein is a cinematographer who has been shooting feature films and TV movies for almost 20 years. “My career required me to be away from home for three or four months at a time for a film,” he says, “but now I want to be around as my children grow up. So I’ve cut back, and I’m trying to work closer to home on documentaries and commercials.”
His new schedule has also given him the perfect opportunity to do something he’s wanted to do for a long time: bring his father’s photography to a wider audience. “I’ve always known that his work was as good as that of many others who were very well-known, and now I want to try to bring him some of the recognition and notice he never received.”
Peter first made an effort to do that some 18 years ago when he put together portfolios of his father’s photographs and hired a representative to show the work. But at that time Peter’s career was just taking off, and he couldn’t follow up on the notice his father’s work was getting. “We got good responses from museum directors who wanted the collection, and there were many letters of support, but I couldn’t pursue it.”
Now he can. “The portfolio had been prepared,” Peter Stein says, “and I had a catalog printed and made some limited-edition prints available for sale.” The catalog text and biographical information about Fred Stein was written by Dawn Freer, Peter’s wife.
Today photographs by Fred Stein are in the collections of the National Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as other museums and private and corporate collections around the world. Ultimately, Peter Stein hopes that a book of his father’s images will be published.
“My father was a free spirit about the business,” Peter says. “He shot what he wanted to shoot and thought about sales later. His joy was meeting people, taking pictures and talking politics. It was an age when you could do that, but even so, he wasn’t financially successful. My mother supported the family.”
“When I was a kid he taught me composition and lighting. I used to go around with him to museums, and he’d explain composition – how to look at things through a frame.”
Fred Stein was born in 1909 in Dresden, Germany, the son of a rabbi and a religion teacher. As a teen-ager he became active in socialist and anti-Nazi movements. He went to Leipzig University, obtained a law degree in an impressively short time, but was denied admission to the German bar by the Nazi government for “racial and political reasons.”
His political activities then became more committed and more dangerous. He joined the Socialist Worker’s Party, a non-Communist splinter group of the Social Democrats. He lectured and rode around on his bike distributing anti-Nazi literature.
Dawn Freer writes of those years: “Under the deepening shadow of fascism, Germany was becoming an increasingly hostile environment. In August, 1933, when Fred Stein married Liselotte (Lilo) Salzburg, the daughter of an eminent Jewish physician, guards at the Justice of Peace greeted them with ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes. Fred Stein’s closest friends had left to live in Paris and urged them to come. When they were secretly warned of danger after the arrest of close friends, Fred and Lilo fled to Paris under the pretext of taking a honeymoon trip.”
In Paris they were in the center of a circle of expatriate socialists, thinkers and artists. “In this fertile milieu,” Dawn Freer writes, “Stein began taking photographs professionally. He was a pioneer of the small, handheld camera, and with the Leica which he and his wife had purchased as a joint wedding present, he made studio portraits and went into the streets to photograph scenes of life in Paris.”
Among his early portraits were images of friends such as Hannah Arendt, Willy Brandt and Arthur Koestler (all of whom he photographed over a period of 30 years). The circle also included Philippe Halsman, with whom Fred Stein hung his first show in 1937, and Robert Capa, whose girlfriend, Gerta Taro, lived as a boarder with the Steins.
In 1939 war between Germany and France was declared and Fred Stein was put in an internment camp for enemy aliens near Paris. “He managed to escape,” Dawn Freer writes, “and after a hazardous journey through the countryside, met his wife and baby girl in Marseilles, where they obtained visas through the efforts of the International Rescue Committee. On May 7, 1941, the three boarded the S S. Winnipeg, one of the last boats to leave France. They carried only the Leica and some negatives that represented his record of the intellectual life of 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 destroyed.
“In New York, Stein continued his photography while his wife worked to support them, first in factories, then as an educator.
“Fred Stein 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. He also photographed many people on commission. Notable portraits from this period include those of Albert Einstein, Carl Sandburg, Thomas Mann and Frank Lloyd Wright.
“Now a mature artist with experience and perspective, Stein was also an astute social observer, walking through the streets of New York, documenting life from Fifth Avenue to Harlem. He worked unobtrusively and quickly, presenting his subject as sole content, never as interesting or incidental material for photographic interpretation. He preferred natural lighting and avoided elaborate setups as well as dramatic effects. He did not retouch or manipulate his prints.
“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 a Rolleiflex.”
Although portraits were his main income-generating work, and he photographed many people on commission, he generally worked without assignment, prizing the freedom of shooting people and scenes that interested him. He would then offer his work to publishers and photo editors of magazines, newspapers and books.
“His work is the document of an exiled European,” Dawn Freer writes, “an intellectually and politically committed man driven out of Germany by the Nazis. Chance made him the outsider, the observer; from this vantage point came his approach and his vision.”
Fred Stein died in 1967 at the age of 58. His portraits and reportage had appeared in newspapers, magazines and books throughout the world. He had also lectured and had held a number of exhibitions. During his lifetime his work received favorable critical attention, but many today feel that the scope and power of his photography were never fully recognized.
In an article about his work in the September 26, 1954, issue of The New York Times, Fred Stein was quoted.
“The report of a likeness and the revelation of character are the two principal goals of the portrait photographer. Both purposes must be achieved in the successful portrait since full recognition of a person is not in the exterior identity alone, but is elaborated and made convincing by some visible element of individuality. The photographer is therefore alert to attitude, gesture, and expression, and snaps the shutter at the critical moment when these signs all blend together to describe the inner personality. One moment is all you have. Like a hunter in search of a target, you look for the one sign that is more characteristic than all the others. The job is to sum up what a man is according to your understanding of him. The painter has the advantage here since he can work toward this objective through several leisurely sessions; the photographer has only one, and that one as brief as a split second.”