STRASBOURG - Fred Stein, A Life Between Two Worlds

Strasbourg, March 3, 2017
by Solenne Livolsi

Fred Stein was born on July 3rd 1909 in Dresden, Germany. The son of a rabbi, he studied law at the University of Leipzig, but was refused admission to the German bar because of his Jewish origins and political ideas (in Dresden at the age of sixteen, he had joined the socialist movement). In August 1933, at the age of 24, he married Liselotte Salzburg - ‘Lilo’ was the daughter of a Jewish doctor and one year younger than him. From this moment on, Lilo began to play a discrete role in her husband’s photographic career. The couple bought themselves a joint wedding present, a compact 35 mm Leica camera that had been invented a few years earlier. Stein continued his anti-Nazi actions, but was under surveillance by the Gestapo in Dresden. The Steins escaped from Germany using the pretext of a supposed honeymoon in Paris. 

Between 1933 and 1939, the young couple took an active part in Paris’ cultural and artistic life, socialising with other photographers - Gerda Taro, Robert Capa and Philippe Halsman, etc. – as well as mingling in political circles with other refugees, left-wing activists, writers and intellectuals. Paris in the 30s was a place of artistic effervescence, stimulated in particular by magazines that took a special interest in photography and exhibitions, or victorious trade union actions. Stein, just like Willy Ronis, covered the strikes at the Renault factories. 

In 1939, Fred Stein was interned in a camp for foreigners near Paris. He managed to escape and join his wife and their daughter Ruth. Not long after he was helped by Varian Fry to flee Europe. Fry was an American journalist who helped several thousand refugees to escape from the Nazis, including many unknown people, but also such famous figures as Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst and André Breton. The couple left France in secret on May 6th 1941 after having roamed across a country in complete upheaval. They managed to board a French steamer in Marseille, the SS Winnipeg, which was bound for New York. They took with them a suitcase full of negatives and some prints, however part of their archives, the most political in nature, was left in Holland for safety reasons. Unfortunately these documents were destroyed during an air raid. 

Fred Stein opened Studio Stein in a small Parisian apartment, before moving to another with his dark room in the bathroom! 

In 1936, the Front Populaire came to power. A new generation of photographers - Capa, David Seymour ‘Chim’ and Cartier-Bresson etc – captured scenes of political unrest and contributed to leaving for posterity many dynamic and politically motivated pictures taken for example during strikes 

The life of the Steins was marked by flight and exile. The family’s personal history continually criss-crossed the key events of History with a capital ‘H’: the migrations of Jews, political refugees and major mid-20th century artistic and political figures. When Fred Stein arrived in New York, he wandered around the city and walked along its broad avenues, his gaze taking in scenes of life in the streets, whilst marvelling at the modern architecture and its perspectives that provided him with a whole new visual playground. America worked its magic and this European photographer was amazed by what he saw. Stein chose his themes and worked in series – something he already used to do in Paris when covering a subject for the press. That his eye was caught up in the tumult of New York life is obvious in his images. Thanks to a wide variety of influences, he was able to experiment and establish a dialogue between documentary, social, poetic and artistic photography. 

In 1941, Fred Stein briefly joined the Photo League. In 1943, Lilo Stein gave birth to the couple’s son Peter. Aware of the many opportunities offered by New York, Stein tried to find a new photographic language to capture the 

beating heart of the city, its rhythm and energy. Switching between a new Leica and a Rolleiflex for its square format, like Weegee or Saul Leiter he gave free rein to his inspiration with intuitive framing choices. From Little Italy to Harlem via Coney Island, Stein explored his adoptive town, ever on the lookout for a situation that was eloquent enough to make him want to press the 

shutter button. As he searched for the moment when a gesture combined with the perfect timing and met all his criteria, Stein‘s images reached a peak in terms of narrative photography. He avoided elaborate settings and dramatic effects and preferred natural or muted lighting. Lilo started working as a teacher and helped her husband, in particular by retouching his images; however from the 50s, hip problems made it hard for Fred 

Stein to get about. Following the advice of Philippe Halsman, he opened a studio and devoted himself entirely to portraits, which led him to meet and photograph more than 1,200 celebrities, artists, politicians, intellectuals and scientists including Albert Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keeffe and Salvador Dali. His portraits were published in newspapers and magazines, as they still are today. Fred Stein never joined a photographic agency or worked for a company, preferring to be his own boss and preserve his independence. He also wrote articles and gave lectures, always with the aim of defending an artistic take on photography. His writings reveal a cultivated man and a charismatic and affable intellectual.

Fred Stein died on September 27th 1967 in New York. As for Lilo, she died thirty years after her husband in 1997. The couple’s son Peter Stein works, together with his wife Dawn Freer and their daughter Kate, toward developing awareness of his father’s work. 

The Photo League was a group of amateur and professional photographers in New York united by shared social and creative objectives. The group was active from 1936 to 1951 and some of America’s best-known 20th century photographers were amongst its members.