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July 3, 1909|
|Died||September 27, 1967
New York, New York
|Education||University of Leipzig,|
Fred Stein (July 3, 1909 – September 27, 1967) was an early pioneer of the hand-held camera who became a gifted street photographer in Paris and New York after he was forced to flee his native Germany by the Nazi threat in the early 1930s. He explored the new creative possibilities of photography, capturing spontaneous scenes from life on the street. He was also a master portraitist, creating intimate images of many of the great personalities of the 20th century.
Early life and background
Fred Stein was born on July 3, 1909, in Dresden, Germany. His father, Dr. Leopold Stein, was rabbi of the Dresden Conservative community, an educated and intelligent man. He died when Fred was six, and his mother, Eva Wollheim Stein, became a religion teacher. Though their circumstances were reduced, his mother encouraged his intellectual and artistic education by enrolling him in the top schools and subscribing to the many museums in Dresden, which Stein "haunted as a youth" (as he later was to say). Stein was very bright and twice skipped grades at the Gymnasium (the German high school), which was a rare occurrence in those days. He was also intellectually curious and read extensively. At the age of sixteen he joined the Socialist Youth Movement (the democratic option in Germany at that time). He was quick to perceive the threat of Adolf Hitler, and became quite active in the anti-Nazi movement.
He decided to become a public defender out of a concern for the plight of the poorest citizens, and attended law school at the prestigious University of Leipzig, from which he graduated after three years, in 1933. He worked in the State Prosecutors Office of Dresden as a prerequisite for obtaining his lawyer's certification. Three weeks before he was to receive the German equivalent of admission to the bar, he was dismissed by the Nazi government for "racial and political reasons", and was forbidden as a Jew to use the public library, halting the work on his Phd thesis.
In January 1933, when Hitler came to power, Stein's anti-Nazi activity became more committed, and also more dangerous. Dresden was a scene of a particularly strong Fascist crackdown, and arrests were increasingly common. In this hostile atmosphere, Stein's political activities became more and more dangerous. Yet he continued to give lectures and to ride around on his bike, distributing Anti-Nazi literature in the streets.
Escape from Germany
In August 1933, Stein married Liselotte (Lilo) Salzburg, the daughter of an eminent Jewish physician. Guards at the Justice of the Peace greeted them with "Heil Hitler" salutes. Working as a law consultant in a factory – which was the only job available to him at this point – Stein received a clandestine warning one night from the son of the factory owner. The SS was asking questions about him, and one of the other workers in the factory had been arrested that day and put into prison. A close friend had written, urging them to come to Paris, and they left the next day under the pretext of taking a honeymoon trip.
Paris in the 1930s was a vital art scene. Emigres from all over Europe were drawn there, with new ideas influenced by the new "Modernism". Artists drew upon the zeitgeist and upon each other's work, producing a wave of inspired vision. Stein and his wife Lilo lived among a circle of expatriate artists and socialists and philosophers, frequenting the cafes and engaging in endless conversation. The Steins were some of the lucky few with an apartment, and there they sheltered refugees and cooked huge meals to feed their friends. Robert Capa’s companion, Gerda Taro, had a room in their apartment. And a frequent visitor was Willy Brandt, who later (in 1969) became Chancellor of Germany.
Unable to work as a lawyer, Stein took up photography using the first model Leica camera he and his wife had bought each other as a wedding present. He began to explore the streets of Paris, looking and learning. It quickly developed into a passion: shooting every day, and studying whatever photo books he could find at night. He brought an extremely sophisticated eye and a quick intelligence to his work, and was soon pushing the limits of the camera, along with the other pioneers of the time. "The Leica taught me photography," as he put it.
When France declared war on Germany in 1939, Fred Stein was put in an internment camp for enemy aliens near Paris. Later, in the confusion of the Nazis’ approach to Paris, he escaped and made his way south, hiding in isolated farmhouses. He sent word through underground channels to his wife Lilo, alone in now-occupied Paris with their one-year-old girl, to meet him. Posing as a French national, she maneuvered her way through German controls, obtained a safe-conduct, and was reunited with Stein in a secret location. They made their way to Marseilles by hiding in the bathrooms of trains; in Marseilles they obtained danger visas through the Emergency Rescue Committee. On May 7, 1941, the three boarded the SS Winnipeg, one of the last boats to leave France. They carried only the Leica, some prints, and the negatives.
In the freedom of New York, the energy of the city infused Stein's work. He added the medium-format Rolleiflex, which takes pictures in a square format.
The city's cultural mix fit perfectly with his talents and concerns. He took to the streets and ranged from Harlem to Fifth Avenue, invigorated by the bustle and variety of the New World. He loved the American spirit; and as an outsider, he came to the various ethnic areas without preconceived ideas. He was able to see in the residents a style, humor and dignity that seems perfectly fresh, even today, as evidenced in "Little Italy" 1943.
Stein's mobility decreased in the 1950s, and he pursued his growing interest in portraiture. Though he had taken portraits for many years, some of them remarkable, he had been primarily a street photographer. But now he turned increasingly to the more intellectual aspect of his artistic exploration. Always gregarious and captivating, he had befriended important writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers through the years. This wide circle of contacts enabled him to meet people he wished to photograph. When he did not have a personal introduction, he would shoot his subjects, documentary-style, at public appearances.
Part of his technique in portraiture was to thoroughly familiarize himself with his subject's work, so that he might be able to discuss – often to argue about - their oeuvre. This way he hoped to be able to capture a picture of the person with their mind engaged. As he described his approach: "One second 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 photographer has only one chance, and that one as brief as a split second." He used natural or minimal lighting, and would not retouch or manipulate the negative. He never used props or dramatic effects to create an "artistic" portrait, as his aim was to let the subject speak for himself or herself. His technique can be seen in the deeply immersed photographs of Albert Einstein and Georgia O'Keeffe. Some of his subjects commissioned portraits from him, as with Marc Chagall and Norman Mailer, etc.
When he took his famous portrait of Albert Einstein in 1946 at Princeton, he had been allotted ten minutes of the great man's time. After the ten minutes were up, Einstein's secretary came in to usher him out. However, Einstein insisted that he stay, saying that their discussion was too interesting to cut short. The secretary came back repeatedly, but the visit extended to two hours. It was from this "interesting" session that the famous portrait resulted. His portrait of Hannah Arendt has become famous too.
Death and legacy
Fred Stein died in New York City on September 27, 1967 at the age of 58. He spent his life creating thousands of remarkable images which are a vital document of the 20th Century and an important part of photo history. The archive of his work is intact and preserved by his son, Peter Stein. Among the museums where his photographs can be found are the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the International Center of Photography (New York), the National Portrait Gallery, The Center for Creative Photography (Tucson), the Musee Carnavalet (Paris), the Jewish Museum (New York), as well as private and corporate collections worldwide.
The Leica camera, which was such an important element for the artists of Stein's generation, was the product of several crucial technological advances. A precision hand-held camera, it ushered in the era of the mobile camera, which freed photographers from the constraints of the older, heavier cameras. The camera was small and lightweight, with the film on a roll; an artist could take quick shots in public places, and take several in succession. This gave photographers a broad new palette of possibilities. Spontaneity became part of the grammar of photography. One of the most important uses of the new mobile camera was street photography: taking the camera out onto the street, capturing fleeting glimpses of life in the midst of the everyday moment.
This was a rich period in photo history, which continues to yield new discoveries to this day (see Mexican Suitcase). Many influential photographers were in Paris, expanding the medium in many ways: Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Philippe Halsman, Brassaï, Model, and many more. Though each had something unique to offer, all explored many similar themes and ideas. Because of the unobtrusiveness of the 35mm camera, it was possible to catch "candid" shots of people in a wide variety of settings. Observing people in their natural habitat, in a relaxed and natural way, allowed many photographers to walk the line between art and photojournalism.
The speed of the new camera led to the use of gesture as an expressive element in a composition. This ability to arrest the fleeting moment revealed things that the unaided eye would not notice. It also made night photography practical for the first time. Fred Stein worked extensively with these elements. A wonderful example is "Paris Evening" 1934. The couple poised on the streetcorner, surrounded by luminous fog, portend a frame of film noir. They cast a long shadow, echoing the shadow from the building next to which they stand—mysterious, expressing a precarious sense of the world.
The very 'modern' Paris of fashion and design found its way into Fred Stein's artistic vision as a juxtaposition of old and new, such as in the photograph "Chez" 1934—a flower vendor, pursuing her ancient trade from a wooden wagon, as her predecessors have for hundreds of years, oblivious to the very modern Chez painted on the wall above her. This juxtaposing of old and new was a theme he worked on consistently in both Paris and New York.
One of the doors into understanding Stein's skill is the fact that he was able to establish a remarkable rapport with people, due partly to easy conversational skills, but also to a natural feeling for the essence of another person. He created a sphere in which his subjects felt free to reveal themselves and their world. It can be seen in the photographs, physically, in the fact that he is not apart from his people—not judging them—he is with them, and not at a distance. He enables their animating spirit to manifest itself.
Fred Stein's photographs work through a combination of emotion and balance. He creates a balance and a tension from both gesture and expression, and also from a poetic mix of cultural approaches: a German sense of formal, elegant composition, lightened by a French, informal freedom. So the photographs rest on a fulcrum of complicated dimensions. Stein's images in Paris achieve a clarity, simplicity, and beauty in the design. As he matures, and moves to New York, the images become more dynamic and complex. But you always have a feeling that he took a great joy in the life and the images he found, and that he was amused and delighted by people in all their aspects and foibles.
- World Celebrities in 90 Photographic Portraits by Fred Stein, Dover Publications, New York 1989.
- Mer Licht, Ernst Battenberg Verlag, Munich 1967.
- Deutsche Portraits, Ernst Battenbeg Verlag, Stuttgart 1961.
- New York 1948, Lumen Publishers, NY, 1948.
- New York 1949, Lumen Publishers, NY, 1949.
- Fifth Avenue, Pantheon, 1947.
- Paris American Relief for France, 1944.
Selected magazine articles
- Photography, (London) January 1936.
- Photography, (London) vol 4 no. 46, June 1936.
- Minicam, July 1944.
- Photo Arts, February, 1952.
- American Way, October, 1997.
- Shutterbug, vol 27 #6, issue 331, April 1998.
- Photographic, August 1998.
- Lenswork, #47 June–July 2003.
- Black and White Magazine, #27 October 2003.
- Shots, Winter 2004.
- Letter by Fred Stein to his friends and relatives, June 1946
- Transcript of Interview with Lilo Stein, October 1988
- Shutterbug Magazine, vol. 27 #6, issue 331, April 1998
- Lenswork Magazine, #47 June–July 2003
- World Celebrities in 90 Photographic Portraits, Dover Publications 1985
- Interview with Peter Stein 2008
- Kasper Heinrich: Fotografien von Fred Stein: Der Poet mit der Kleinbildkamera. Der Spiegel 11/19, 2013
- www.fredstein.com Fred Stein (1909–1967).