Jewish Shutterbug Fred Stein Comes Into Sharp Focus at Berlin Exhibit

After feeling Nazi Germany, Stein shot famous thinkers and documented urban life in New York and Paris. Now he is the subject of a show in Berlin.

Avner Shapira
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Avner Shapira

BERLIN - The wedding present that Lilo and Fred Stein bought themselves was never left unused: The newly married Jewish couple brought the 35mm Leica camera with them when they left Germany in the fall of 1933. They ostensibly were going on their honeymoon, but in fact were fleeing the Nazis only a few months after Hitler came to power. The couple found refuge in Paris, where Fred Stein, who practiced as a lawyer in Germany, was forced to find a new profession. He turned his hobby as a shutterbug into a profession, becoming a gifted and esteemed photographer.

Among Stein's photos are poetic and humorous urban scenes and iconic portraits of great thinkers and politicians such as Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Willy Brandt and many other famous figures. Unlike his subjects, Stein himself remained in the shadows, and was largely forgotten by the public after his death in 1967.

Now, the Jewish Museum in Berlin is reviving the photographer's works with the exhibition “In an Instant: Photographs by Fred Stein.” The show, which opened last month and runs through March 23, 2014, aims to cement Stein's proper place in the history of 20th-century photography and shed light on the story of his life as a Jewish German refugee living in the shadow of the historical events taking place around him.

“With more than 130 black-and-white photos, [the exhibition] presents street views of Paris and New York along with portraits. Personal documents, original prints, and contact sheets offer further glimpses of the photographer’s life and work,” the Jewish Museum writes of Germany’s first comprehensive Fred Stein retrospective.

The exhibition ranges from portraits of enormously influential and famous people to those often called the “common people,” many of them poor, and documents their daily routines and their poverty. In this way, the show does justice to Stein’s outlook, in which "the camera makes no distinction between famous people and a nobody, between a good friend and a complete stranger, when the shutter opens.”

Wandering the streets with a Leica

Stein was born in July, 1909, in Dresden. His father was a rabbi and his mother a teacher. In his youth he was a member of the Socialist Youth Movement and a Jewish youth movement, and starting in 1927 he studied law in Berlin, Heidelberg and the University of Leipzig. He was a member of the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany (SAPD), the Marxist offshoot that broke from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

In 1932, he met Liselotte (Lilo) Salzburg, the daughter of a prominent Jewish physician, and they married in the summer of 1933. Stein was forced to leave his work in the State Prosecutor’s Office in Dresden just three weeks before he would have qualified for the German equivalent of the bar due to both the anti-Semitic decrees enforced after the Nazis rose to power and his left-wing political activities. He also had to give up working on his Ph.D. thesis.

After fleeing to Paris with his wife, Stein realized he could not make a living as a lawyer there and “found the light in the dark room.” In 1934, he opened Studio Fred Stein in a small apartment whose bathroom doubled as the darkroom. He started photographing the French capital with his Leica, and a year later he already began exhibiting his work alongside renowned photographers such as Brassaï, Man Ray, Dora Maar, and André Kertész.

“His boundless curiosity, his general interest in art, and his visual sensitivity helped Stein to quickly mature from his initial amateur status,” writes Theresia Ziehe, the exhibition's curator.

Detail of a photograph of women in Little Italy.
Children Reading Newspaper, Paris 1936.
Detail of a portrait of Albert Einstein, photographed in 1946.
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Detail of a photograph of women in Little Italy.Credit: © Estate of Fred Stein
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Children Reading Newspaper, Paris 1936.Credit: © Estate of Fred Stein
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Detail of a portrait of Albert Einstein, photographed in 1946.Credit: © Estate of Fred Stein

“The Leica became his constant companion, perfectly meeting his photographic needs. It allowed him to roam the streets as a flâneur, directly capturing the scenes he encountered, interested in the small and seemingly insignificant, yet moving moments of everyday life. He had an affectionate and empathetic way of treating the people he examined through his lens, and took countless photographs on the streets and in other locations in France,” said Ziehe.

Stein photographed the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks around Paris, and also turned his camera on the lives of the Jews in the city, the poor and homeless, workmen and passersby who filled the urban space, as well as scenes of families or children playing.

“One moment is all you have," Stein once said. "Like a hunter in search of a target, you look for the sign that is more characteristic than all others."

In an article about the exhibition, German newspaper Der Spiegel wrote, “Stein’s black-and-white photos record life in the big city without robbing his subjects of their dignity or putting their poverty on display for voyeuristic purposes. He often encountered his impromptu subjects with an eye for finding the comic aspects of generally normal situations. There is the sleeping shoeshiner, men laying bricks and a group of women in Little Italy, some looking with amusement, and others with skepticism into the camera, as if the German with the Leica had barged into their conversation."

Ziehe puts it this way: “His special brand of congenial humor can frequently be seen running through his motifs. The street photographs illustrate the combination of Fred Stein’s interest in the everyday, along with his sense for the precise moment, which makes his view unique."

When World War II broke out, Stein was once again forced to stop working: In 1939, he was arrested and imprisoned in an internment camp for enemy aliens near Paris. He escaped and fled on foot to the south of France, surviving the long journey by hiding in isolated farmhouses. He got word to his wife in Paris and she met him with their 1-year-old daughter; they reached Marseilles, where in May, 1941, they managed to secure passage on one of the last ships to leave France for New York on “danger visas.” They settled there, had a son, and Stein returned to his photography, opening a new studio, while Lilo taught German and helped handle the pictures. Stein began working with a medium-format Rolleiflex, which shoots pictures in a square format, along with the Leica. As he did in Paris, Stein turned his lens onto the urban scenery of New York and its residents, and some of the images in the show are of Fifth Avenue, children playing in Harlem and Brooklyn, and of women in the city's Little Italy.

Stein also worked for photo agencies at the time, and his pictures appeared in papers including the New York Times and Time magazine.

Authenticity was key

In the early 1950s, Stein received American citizenship. Around the same time, he decided to concentrate on portrait photography, partly due to mobility problems, although he had developed his portraiture skills earlier. Over the years, he shot more than 1,200 portraits of important figures in politics, society and culture -- including statesmen such as John F. Kennedy, Konrad Adenauer, Nikita Khrushchev and David Ben-Gurion; architects such as Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright; artists including Salvador Dali, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miro, Marc Chagall and Georgia O’Keefe; composers including Arnold Schoenberg; philosophers such as Martin Buber, Max Horkheimer and Karl Jaspers; a long list of writers including Berthold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Arthur Koestler, Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll; and actress Marlene Dietrich.

Stein would study up on the history and works of his subjects and talk with them at length before photographing them. For him, the point of portrait photography was to “create [through the medium of photography] a substitute for the living human being, a picture that says something about the outer and inner person,” as he explained in a letter.

“Before taking his portrait photographs, Fred Stein always tried to get to know the person," states an explanation at the exhibit. "He thought about their work and ideas. At times, the picture itself took second place to heated discussions. It was often only at the end of a session that the photograph was finally taken. Many of Stein’s portraits show the traces of these conversations."

Ziehe uses two stories to illustrate how Stein worked with his subjects: “The portrait of Albert Einstein was made in 1946 in Princeton. Originally, Einstein did not want to be photographed, but he finally agreed to sit for no longer than ten minutes. Those ten minutes turned into two hours as the two men struck up an animated conversation, having fun exchanging jokes. On another occasion, Stein photographed [Czech writer and journalist] Egon Erwin Kisch in 1936 in Versailles. Stein was an admirer of the journalist’s reporting work and spent a long time talking politics with him at the sitting. As he was about to say goodbye, he noticed that he hadn’t yet taken a single shot and quickly snapped Kisch wearing his coat and hat and lighting a cigarette.”

Ziehe added that authenticity was one of Stein’s photographic goals. He was not interested in elaborate scene-setting and worked mostly with natural light, using a flash only when absolutely necessary.

According to Ziehe, Stein was also averse to retouching, which led to arguments with his wife, who did minor retouching work for him. "Especially for portraits of women, Lilo Stein wished to enhance the photographs somewhat, a step that certain women also expected – but her husband would not tolerate that," explained Ziehe. "He took this so far that he displayed a clear preference for photographing men. Asked by some of his subjects why they looked so old in their portrait, he replied that they should just take a look in the mirror – an expression of both his humor and his intention to produce authentic images."

Many of Stein's portraits are hung side-by-side on the two walls of the Berlin exhibition. Together they make up an impressive group portrait of the “People of the Twentieth Century” (to borrow from the title of the collective portrait of German society photographed by August Sander). A great many German immigrants were among those Stein photographed -- both Jews and Christians who, like Stein, fled the Nazis.

In his final years, Stein had planned to publish a book including many of his portraits and an anthology of texts from some of the greatest German poets thinkers speaking out against Nazi Germany. In 1961, he published some of his more famous photos of German emigrants in a book called “German Portraits,” which was published in Stuttgart. Stein died in New York in 1967 at age 58.

Detail of an image of Fred Stein, photographed by his wife Lilo.Credit: © Estate of Fred Stein

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