The Cultural Context of Fred Stein

Rosenberg & Co.
Apr 6, 2022 3:45PM

On the occasion of the recent film Out of Exile: The Photography of Fred Stein, Rosenberg & Co. is pleased to present an exhibition of photographs featured in the film.

"It brings all my senses inward... I scan the scene in front of me; out of the exterior world, with its variety of forms, I focus in on a field of view." —Fred Stein

Fred Stein picked up his handheld 35mm Leica camera in 1933 during a period in which the degree of artfulness inherent in photography was being debated across Europe and America. The release of the handheld Kodak #1 camera in 1888 had brought a widening of the medium to encompass quick snapshots of “casual amateurs”; the documentation of World War I through photojournalism further punctuated deliberations regarding the purpose and value of photography as art.* The interwar period proved a vibrant and intense time for the medium and its artists as they continued exploring new directions.

Photographers identifying with Surrealism, such as Eugène Atget in France, experimented with dreamlike compositions that challenged the worldly perceptions of the conscious mind. In New York City, Alfred Stieglitz founded the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in which he championed the painterly, hands-on darkroom processes of Pictorialism while he pursued, in his own work, techniques that emphasized in-camera composition and natural elements. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy led his Bauhaus students in Germany to continually test the boundaries of the medium, most notably with the innovation of the photogram.

As World War II loomed, many photographers experienced a growing disillusionment with the philosophical questions of Surrealism and Pictorialism. Leica released its first handheld camera in 1925 and further advanced the capabilities of photojournalists, whose work was increasingly valued as international events needed coverage. Germany, in particular, experienced a boom of media publications that heavily relied on the concept of the photo essay to communicate messages and document the news.

It was against this fluctuating artistic and journalistic backdrop that Fred Stein grew up, attended law school, and developed as a political activist. Fred and Lilo Stein fled Nazi Germany and reached Paris in 1933—in the same year and in the same city that Henri Cartier-Bresson began using the handheld 35mm Leica that produced the documentary-style street photographs that he would become known for.

As Fred and Lilo Stein narrowly escaped France and made their new home in New York City, photojournalists across the world were rushing to document the battles and tragedies that accompanied the second wave of international war. This dedication to candid documentation subsequently molded the next decades of documentary photography, especially in America, where groups like the Photo League (active from 1936–1951) centered their mission and message around social commentary and change.

Fred Stein engaged with each wave of these successive and intermingling movements in photography. Paris and New York were vibrant centers of artistic exchange, particularly in the development of these ideas. Though he never explicitly identified with a specific movement, elements of each ideology and technique collide in his expansive oeuvre. In Stein’s manipulation of natural light and striking compositions can be seen the work of Stieglitz; many moments he captured reveal the underlying poetry of daily life, reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson; at times, his photography incorporated the ethereal aesthetic impulse inherent in Pictorialism; and, like the Surrealists, he exposed emotional undercurrents of human moments that are otherwise impalpable.

Just as every artist must be recognized for their individual styles and techniques, so too must Fred Stein. Complexity suffuses his work: the tender and dynamic elements of modern life drew Stein’s eye to find visual weight in his compositions, whether candid street scene or intentional portrait. His celebrated photograph of Albert Einstein, notoriously irritable at the prospect of getting his portrait taken, suggests easeful intelligence and scholarly curiosity; his portrait of Georgia O’Keefe echoes equally with her strong intellect and shrewd artistry.

Demanding nothing from subject or viewer, Fred Stein crafts intimate, powerful images that speak with honesty and empathy—images that both stand with and stand out from the historical contexts in which he lived and the artistic contexts in which he developed his singular craft.

Out of Exile: The Photography of Fred Stein is on view through April 9.

Rosenberg & Co.