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The most famous portrait photographer you never knew

By Cindy Mindell

In 1941, German-Jewish photographer Alfred “Fred” Stein and his wife, Liselotte, escaped with their baby daughter on one of the last ships to leave Vichy France. The Steins were among a few hundred Jewish artists and intellectuals provided exit visas by journalist and Connecticut resident Varian Fry, who had come to Vichy during the war to set up the International Rescue Committee. Already a renowned street photographer and portraitist in Paris, Stein would continue his work in Manhattan, creating iconic portraits of writers, artists, scientists, politicians, and philosophers, and documenting street life from Fifth Avenue to Harlem.

Stein died in 1967, at age 58, after capturing on film iconic images of the likes of Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Willem de Kooning, Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, Norman Mailer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvador Dali, Nikita Khrushchev, David Ben-Gurion, and many others.

Stein’s work was largely forgotten until the late ‘90s when his son, Peter, began working to rescue it from obscurity. Born in New York in 1948, Peter Stein is a cinematographer who has worked as the director of photography on almost 50 feature films, including Friday the 13th Part 2, Pet Sematary, and Necessary Roughness. A member of the American Society of Cinematographers, Stein has taught at several universities, including SUNY Purchase, The School of Visual Arts, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is currently working on a documentary film about his father.

Peter Stein will talk about his late father’s life and work on Sunday, April 3 at The Conservative Synagogue in Westport.

Born in Dresden in 1909, the son of a rabbi and a Jewish educator, Alfred Stein attended law school at Leipzig University, graduating first in his class in 1933. That was the year the Nazis came to power, banning Jews from government positions, and dashing Stein’s professional aspirations. He remained active in anti-fascist causes, delivering lectures around Dresden and handing out literature from his bicycle. A friend’s father hired Stein as a law consultant at his factory, but after the Gestapo paid a visit, warned Stein to leave the country.

Alfred and Liselotte left for Paris, under the pretense of taking a honeymoon.

“My parents wanted to go to France because it was so close to Germany and everybody felt that it was just a matter of time until the Nazis would be overthrown, maybe in six months or a year,” says Peter Stein. “They wanted to be close enough to Germany so that they could go right back in and help reestablish a democracy.”

Fred Stein began photographing street scenes and fellow expatriate artists and intellectuals with a small hand-held Leica camera. He continued his anti-fascist activity, writing and lecturing under a pseudonym and serving as a leader of the Anti-Fascist Journalist Association and as a member of the Foreign Press Association of France.

Among the couple’s friends was Willy Brandt, then a member of the anti-Nazi underground who would stay with the Steins on his way to and from Norway, where he was helping to organize a resistance group.

The Steins’ daughter was born in Paris in 1938. The following year, with fears of an imminent German invasion, the French government interned all “enemy aliens” – Nazis and Jews alike. As the mother of a French citizen, Liselotte was exempt, but Fred was not. He was taken to a camp north of Paris, and escaped just before the invading army liberated the camp and sent Jewish internees to Auschwitz.

He reunited with Linsdette and his daughter and sailed for New York in May 1941. There, Stein continued to photograph, publishing four books of his work. Liselotte died in 1997.

Brandt remained close friends with the couple throughout his political career as mayor of Berlin and chancellor of Germany. In the late ‘50s, he helped Stein land a book project photographing famous German personalities, many of them Bundestag members who had been Stein’s friends before the war.

Since the late ‘90s, the public has been reintroduced to Alfred Stein’s work through the efforts of his son. Last month in Manhattan, Stein’s work was exhibited at the Rosenberg Gallery, owned by the granddaughter of renowned French art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. In May, Stein’s photographs will be included in an exhibition on the Popular Front held at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, and will be featured at a museum in Paris next year.

“In an Instant: The Life and Photographs of Fred Stein” with Peter Stein: Sunday, Apr. 3, 1 pm, The Conservative Synagogue, 30 Hillspoint Road, Westport | Info/registration: Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, (203) 321-1373, ext. 150 / info@jhsfc-ct.org.

CAP: Fred and Lisolette Stein, 1932

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