You may not know his name, but his portraits are world famous. Fred Stein was that Jewish German lawyer who fled Nazi Berlin to become one of the most prolific portraitists of his age, from 1930s Paris to New York’s German exile circles until his death in 1967. We sat with DHM curator Ulrike Kuschel for a chat about the life and work of this remarkable photographer.
How did the Deutsches Historisches Museum come to dedicate an exhibition to Fred Stein? Is this connected to the recent Hannah Arendt exhibition, which included some portraits Stein took of her?
Yes. We worked closely with Fred Stein’s son, Peter Stein, who was very generous and provided a lot of his father’s photographs of Hannah Arendt for the exhibition. There was a whole section about Stein taking portraits of Han- nah Arendt – I believe he photographed her on at least five occasions between 1944 and 1965, when they both lived in New York. She once wrote in a letter that he’s one of the best contemporary portrait photographers. Obviously, she was very fond of him.
Hannah Arendt and Fred Stein have strikingly parallel biographies. Not only were they in Paris at more or less the same time, but they both escaped Nazi-occupied France by a hair, catching one of the last ships from Marseille in 1941.
Yes, there were many parallels. But in Paris, they were in very different circles. Hannah Arendt was active in the Zionist community, whereas Fred Stein, as a member of the Association of German Journalists in Exile, was different circles. For example he was in touch with the French chapter of the Association of German Writers, which was dissolved in 1933 and revived abroad by exiled writers.
Your exhibition shows portraits of the German emigrés who populated Paris between 1936 and 1941, from the literary critic Alfred Kantorowicz to authors like Heinrich Mann and Anna Seghers. There’s also chancellor-to-be Willy Brandt, who as a socialist activist had also fled Nazi persecution.
There are some myths about Fred Stein. For example, this photograph of Willy Brandt is widely thought to have been taken in Spain, where Brandt was working as a journalist for Norwegian newspapers. But we were able to find a file from the Fred Stein Archive in New York, which proves that the photograph was taken in Paris. The difficulty is that a lot of information got lost. Many photographs don’t have a date, and we rarely know the occasion or assignment behind them.
So his photos were regularly published at the time?
Yes. We mostly know about that thanks to the archive of the Akademie der Künste here in Berlin, which was an important source for the exhibition because it holds the estates of many of the writers he photographed. For example, I found a letter he wrote to [East German author] Willi Bredel in August 1939, where he asks if Bredel could help him publish his photographs in the Soviet Union. Back then he was very eager to find outlets.
Willy Brandt helped him publish in Norway, and we know he worked for two Czech papers. So, in a way, he was already working internationally as a photographer in the 1930s. In France, he worked for the communist magazine Regards. I also found a portrait of [French communist author] Henri Barbusse, published in L’Humanité shortly after his death. But it isn’t easy to find his photographs in the press, because back then it wasn’t common to include the photographer’s name – I found the Barbusse portrait by chance.
It’s impressive that someone trained as a lawyer, then later exiled, could instantly switch careers to make a living as a photojournalist.
Yes, and he managed to sell his photographs to newspapers right away! He was really young – 24 when he arrived in Paris – but very clever. He used his connections through the Association of German Journalists in Exile, and he met Robert Capa and [war photographer, photo right] Gerda Taro, who might have helped him with contacts to French newspapers. His wife Lilo Stein was also very involved with the Studio Stein in the 1930s.
Did Lilo Stein also take photographs?
It’s very possible. The Archives of the Prefecture de Police in Paris shows that when she applied for her refugee status, she stated in French that she was working with her husband as a photographer. And there is one photograph, which we will show in the exhibition, where she is carrying a camera, and it looks like that she not only carries the camera, but also uses it.
I’m very sure the photograph was taken by Fred Stein, so it seems they had two cameras, one each. When I asked Peter Stein, he remembered that his mother took photographs later in New York. She was a nursery teacher and documented her work with the children, making two small photo books for herself.
The exhibition is showing original prints, but where do the 1930s originals come from? The Steins had a very difficult escape from France, via internment camps and a last-minute boat escape to the US. Did they manage to bring the prints along?
That’s unclear. Peter Stein says that his mother rescued the negatives in a suitcase from Paris to Toulouse. But she would have also had a baby, and they were on the run. There’s one letter where Fred Stein writes that his boxes and collection of prints were burned at Marseilles railway station in 1941.
That’s what Fred Stein told the National Refugee Service in New York when he applied for money to buy more material to work as a photographer. But we checked the newspapers of the time, and we couldn’t find any evidence for this. So maybe there were boxes left somewhere in storage in France. He certainly had quite a bit of material to work on later in New York – not only negatives but also prints.
Most of what we know about Fred Stein has come from his son Peter, who has made it his life’s mission to bring his father the esteem he deserved.
Yes, but the information we give in the exhibition is primarily based on letters and archives. I worked a lot with carbon copies of letters Fred Stein sent to different people: friends, customers, writers. For example there always was a story that the Steins started to work in Paris with a Leica camera, which they gave each other as a wedding present. But there is no proof of this in the letters. Actually, one letter suggests that he started to work with a secondhand Leica he bought shortly before leaving Germany.
What did you learn from his letters?
You really see how hard it was for him to make a living: how hard he worked on building his reputation, making new contacts, finding clients. You also get the impression that he wrote very sharply. He never practised as a lawyer, but there are letters to publishers that show how he defended his own copyright. He later joined the American Society of Photographers, whose mission was to fight for the rights of photographers. This is where his former profession showed: He could argue in a very articulate way.
It’s unbelievable how many famous people he took photos of – 24 Nobel Prize winners, according to Peter Stein. Did he know them personally, or were these all professional assignments?
There are some people he was close with, but mostly he knew there would be a possibility to sell the portrait. He also took so many photographs of prominent people because he went to press conferences and all kinds of events. There is a photograph of Marlene Dietrich, which I’m quite sure was taken at a reception at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Our photographs of Ingeborg Bachmann were taken at a reception at the Goethe Haus, which Hannah Arendt attended. Fred Stein would crop these photographs and sell them as portraits to publishers and magazines. We also have one photo of Aldous Huxley, and to me it looks like it was taken outside New York Public Library.
So his priority was to sell?
When he arrived in NYC, he had a family and two small children to feed. I think this shaped his work as a photographer. He couldn’t afford to work for art’s sake. In our exhibition we primarily present him as a press and portrait photographer. In Paris, he worked for the international press. In New York, he was more of a magazine photographer – he didn’t have to travel much outside NYC, except for when he went to Princeton to take his famous Einstein portrait.
What’s the story behind that Einstein portrait?
His friend Peter Bergmann, who used to be an assistant to Einstein, arranged the portrait session in 1946. This wasn’t so exceptional back then: Einstein was very generous. He gave the opportunity to many photographers because he wanted to support the Jewish refugees coming to the United States. Fred Stein thought it would be very important for his career to take a photograph of Albert Einstein. He published it in Fortune in 1946, but the image was very, very small. It was republished as a full-sized portrait in Science for the 50th anniversary of the relativity theory. We show the magazine in the exhibition.
How would you describe his style as a photographer?
I don’t think he was particularly interested in technique or darkroom work. There are photographers who are really keen on what the prints should look like, but I think Stein was more into his subjects. He had a very direct approach to people, and he was empathetic. He had good human contact, which is essential for a portrait photographer, because you need your subject to feel comfortable. The letters show a very friendly, humorous man. In one, he writes to his aunt that he works “a lot of bread and butter jobs” but sometimes has “große Rosinen im Kopf” (big raisins in the head), meaning grand ideas.
What were those “big raisin” ideas?
Exhibitions, books, some calendars too. Fred Stein considered himself an artist, and he took part in shows, some of which he probably organised himself.
Do you have a soft spot for any one of his photos in particular?
Alfred Kantorowicz was something of a spiritus rector for me with this exhibition. In the exhibition catalogue we will publish one excerpt from ‘Alltag in der Emigration’ (Daily Life in Exile), a moving text he published with the Paris Editions du Phénix, in German. It describes one day in Paris, as exiles lived back then in the French capital.
The Jewish Museum Berlin had their own Fred Stein exhibition seven years ago. What’s special about this one?
We’re presenting about 160 photographs, mostly original prints. But what is really special about our exhibition is that we did a lot of research to present Fred Stein’s work in the political-historical context of what was happening in the 1930s – how these writers and journalists organised themselves, what they published, how they created their own space. And Fred Stein was an integral part of this scene.
So the Paris portraits are exhibited alongside objects and artefacts from that time. For example, we’ll show Fred Stein’s portrait of Heinrich Mann next to a 1939 copy of Mut and a card from a German bookstore in Paris announcing the novel’s release. There’s also a great photograph of Arthur Koestler – this will be accompanied by a quote from a letter that Fred Stein wrote to him, where he’s reminiscing about the day he took Koestler’s photograph in Paris. Back then, Koestler was reading the proofs for the Spanish Testament. So we’ll show the book Koestler was working on when Fred Stein took his photograph.