A Bygone Era of Big City Life

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A Bygone Era of Big City Life

Credit Estate of Fred Stein

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“Mehr Licht” — more light — were Goethe’s famous last words. That deathbed declaration was also the title of Fred Stein’s only book, featuring images taken along Fifth Avenue, which was published posthumously. What could be more fitting?

The German photographer’s oeuvre has been largely overlooked, but more light is being shed on his work in an exhibition at the Maison Doisneau, just outside Paris, featuring Mr. Stein’s black-and-white images taken on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was born in 1909 to a Jewish family in Dresden, where he developed an early interest in politics and became an anti-Nazi activist. He studied law in Leipzig but was denied admission to the German bar because of anti-Semitism. In 1933, he married Liselotte Salzburg, known as Lilo, and the two fled their native Germany for Paris under the guise of a honeymoon, from which they never returned.

Although Mr. Stein spoke impeccable French, he couldn’t practice law in the French system either. Instead, he reinvented himself as a photographer, buying a 35mm Leica and opening Studio Stein (where the bathroom doubled as the darkroom). He photographed Parisian street scenes: a capped chauffeur ambushed by two inquisitive small dogs; a close-up of a woman asleep in a park with an unlit cigarette in hand; a couple embracing under lamplight. He also documented more politically-charged realities, like the Popular Front movement. In 1939, he was interned in a camp, but thanks to the International Rescue Committee managed to escape France along with his wife and infant daughter. They headed to New York via Marseilles on the S.S. Winnipeg, the Leica and some negatives in tow.

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Man in pushcart. New York. 1944.Credit Estate of Fred Stein

In New York City, Mr. Stein once again explored a new…

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