|Virtuoso of the Leica, Fred Stein is a largely unsung master of a generation of photographers whose talents were swept across Europe by the dark geopolitical events of the 1930s and 1940s, only to land in the safe haven of New York. Captured with verve and wit, an eye for the poignant as well as the surprising, Stein's images of the urban life and iconic portraits of the luminaries of the 20th century are ripe for rediscovery. With a selection of vintage prints spanning over three decades, Fred Stein: Paris / New York will introduce 21st century audiences to the range of the photographer's work.|
Born in Dresden, Stein and his wife immigrated to Paris in 1933 under the pressure of increasingly untenable conditions in Germany and his being unable to pursue his career as a lawyer. It was in the French capital that Stein realized his vocation as a photographer. Taking to the streets of Paris with a Leica that the couple bought for each other as a joint wedding present, Stein made images steeped in the poetry of the city - every bit the equal of his contemporaries Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ilse Bing, and André Kertész. Whether depicting a lonely figure along the quays of the Seine or the abstract plays of light on a cobblestoned intersection filtered through the "new vision" of the era, the photographs from the 1930s show how sensitively attuned Stein was to the rhythms of the metropolis. Displaying both the isolation of those down on their luck as well as moments of spontaneous warmth and community, Stein's humanistic outlook found initial expression in the intellectually rich milieu of pre-war France.
Such inclinations would go on to serve Stein well in New York, where his talents as a documentarian found a place with the Photo League. Having escaped an internment camp for enemy aliens in wartime France and miraculously reuniting with his family in Marseille, in 1941 Stein found passage on a steamer bound for the United States. There he built a successful studio practice specializing in portraiture, while also continuing his independent work in the streets of the city. Stein's characteristic humor and sympathy manifested in photos infused with an increasingly sophisticated approach to the atmospherics of lighting and tonality. As befits a professional portraitist, Stein relentlessly sought to the capture the human face of his time.
The photographs of Fred Stein (1909-1967) were extensively published in the illustrated magazines, newspapers, and books of his time. This is the first solo exhibition of Stein's work at Robert Mann Gallery since the gallery began representing the estate last year. Last fall the Musée du Montparnasse in Paris exhibited a selection of his portraits of exiled artists and intellectuals; an accompanying catalogue of works was also published on the occasion. Stein's photographs are represented in the collections of the International Center of Photography, New York; the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson; the Jewish Museum, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; and the Musée Carnavalet, Paris.
The lawyer-turned-photographer—who fled Germany in the nineteen-thirties, moving first to Paris and then to New York—was easily overshadowed by such contemporaries as André Kertész, Lisette Model, and Helen Levitt. But this selection of vintage black-and-white prints makes a strong case for reëvaluating the work, much of which could be mistaken for that of his more famous peers. Judging by this group, street life was Stein's prime focus, and his photographs of pedestrian and vehicular traffic are deftly composed. Individuals—a shoeshine boy slumped in his chair, an amorous couple at Coney Island, a young woman dozing on the grass in Paris—are even more carefully and tellingly observed. Through June 30.
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Virtuoso of the Leica is an Unsung Master
Somehow the legacy of this photographer is only now on its way to gaining the true recognition it deserves. We need not look at many works to realize their quality, their belonging to the time and place of the artist and his contemporaries. Perhaps it was the era and Stein's need to keep on the move, to reinvent and rebuild himself that worked against his earlier establishment. Born in Dresden, Stein studied law but the Nazi Government denied him admission to the bar. Stein and his wife left Germany in 1933 claiming to be on honeymoon. They traveled to Paris where Stein began taking photographs with the Leica they bought as a joint wedding present.
In Paris Stein allied himself with a circle of artists and intellectuals. He was among the first to adopt the agile hand-held camera and used it to work with spontaneity to capture the drama, the elegance, the grit of the every day. The rhythm in his work is dynamic almost architectural, the framing structured but spontaneous. Stein seemed to have worked with an easy airiness and his sense of "the moment" too is well but gracefully thought. Life was again interrupted in 1939 when Germany declared war on France. Stein was put in an internment camp, but managed to escape and reunite with his wife and infant daughter in the south and obtain assistance from the International Rescue Committee. The family left France for New York in 1941.
Finding himself in a new, vibrant cultural hub Stein again set root and formed relationships with cultural, scientific, and political leaders. Stein continued to work to capture the city life, and also opened a studio business. The portrait enhanced his knowledge of light and tone that enhanced the quality of his more spontaneous personal work. Many personalities of his time were subjects of his portraits, including Albert Einstein, Georgia O'Keefe, and Marc Chagal (all on view). The anonymous are seen with equal honor and dignity, even in heavier themed frames of folks down on their luck or hungry-looking children. Stein's work was published in a slew of magazines, newspapers, and texts of his time; his relevance slow in coming to all circles, will certainly be remembered by all who see his work.
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The career of Fred Stein (1909-1967) illustrates how easily a talented photographer can be written out of history. Born in Dresden, Germany, Mr. Stein belonged to the generation that documented trouble in Europe with hand-held cameras (in his case, a Leica) during the 1930s. Fleeing Leipzig for Paris in 1933 and France for the U.S. in 1941, he found a home with the Photo League in New York and established a successful studio practice here, specializing in portraiture.
This selection of work suggests he must have gone to school in Paris on the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész. Like them, he identified with those on the economic margins of the city. His pictures of the dispossessed — a man asleep on a bench, another dozing on a loading dock, a bum with wine bottles stuffed in his sagging pockets, an exhausted shoeshine boy — are standouts here.
Celebrity portraits done in New York of Marc Chagall, Albert Einstein and Georgia O'Keeffe are more prosaic. What's unclear from this keyhole view of Mr. Stein's oeuvre is whether his impressive street photographs were more the exception or the rule.