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In an Instant

Photographs by Fred Stein

In an Instant. Photographs by Fred Stein© Jewish Museum Berlin

An instant can make the difference - whether in life or in photography. For the photographer Fred Stein, it was those brief moments that determined his life, both personally and professionally.

Fred Stein looking through a camera

Fred Stein, photo by Lilo Stein (1910-1997), Paris 1937
© Estate of Fred Stein

Fred Stein was born in Dresden in 1909, the son of a rabbi. When the Nazis came to power, the committed socialist was forced to give up his job as a lawyer and leave Germany. Under the pretext of taking a honeymoon trip, he escaped to Paris with his wife Lilo in 1933. There he faced the challenge of building a new livelihood from scratch.

Inspired by a Leica 35mm camera - Fred and Lilo Stein’s wedding gift to each other - Fred Stein chose photography as his new profession.

In Paris, Fred Stein very soon established his own photography studio. From 1935 on, he contributed to several exhibitions with renowned photographers including Brassaï, Man Ray, Dora Maar, and André Kertész.

A woman sitting on a bench in a park, wearing a newspaper on her hat

Newspaper Hat, New York 1946
© Estate of Fred Stein

When the war broke out, the Steins and their little daughter had to pack their bags again. They reached New York in 1941 on one of the last ships out. In the United States, Fred Stein resumed his photography, now using a medium-format Rolleiflex camera as well as the Leica. These easy-to-use cameras allowed him to stroll through the streets capturing the city and its people in brief but critical instants. All his life, he concentrated on street scenes and portraits.

The exhibition is Germany’s first comprehensive retrospective of Fred Stein’s work. With more than 130 black-and-white photos, it presents street views of Paris and New York along with portraits. Personal documents, original prints, and contact sheets offer further glimpses of the photographer’s life and work.

Sociology of the Street

"One moment is all you have. Like a hunter in search of a target, you look for the sign that is more characteristic than all others."

Children sitting on the street, reading a newspaper

Children Reading Newspaper, Paris 1936
© Estate of Fred Stein

Photograph of the Eiffel Tower behind a fountain

Eiffel Tower, Paris 1934
© Estate of Fred Stein

Skyscrapers behind an elevated train

El at Water Street, New York 1946
© Estate of Fred Stein

A man selling vegetables in front of a shop window with Hebrew letters

Market, New York 1947
© Estate of Fred Stein

A group of ladies on the street, smoking

Little Italy, New York 1943
© Estate of Fred Stein

Billboard at Times Square

Billboard, New York 1948
© Estate of Fred Stein

A man on a bench in a park

Man on Bench, New York 1941
© Estate of Fred Stein

A man with a stick in front of a poster on the wall for "Le Gaz"

Le Gaz, Paris 1935
© Estate of Fred Stein

Two men at a fruit cart on the street

Fruit Cart, New York 1947
© Estate of Fred Stein

A couple in front of a confiserie

Paris Evening, Paris 1934
© Estate of Fred Stein

Paris Evening, Paris 1934
© Estate of Fred Stein

In the cities of his emigration - Paris in the 1930s, New York from the 1940s on - Fred Stein shot countless street scenes, including pictures of the Jewish quarters.

As well as classic views of the two metropolises, he created many milieu studies and character portraits. Embedded in a sociological context of poverty and ordinary urban lives, they show road workers, sales assistants, homeless people, and family scenes. Fred Stein’s gaze unites the everyday with a sense of the extraordinary moment. His pictures often show flashes of humor.

Psychology of the Portrait

"The camera makes no distinction between famous people and a nobody, between a good friend and a complete stranger, when the shutter opens."

Portraits of Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), Paris 1935; Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992), New York 1957; Joan Miró (1893-1983), New York 1965; Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), New York 1963
© Estate of Fred Stein

Before taking his portrait photographs, Fred Stein always tried to get to know the person. He thought about their work and ideas. At times, the picture itself took second place to heated discussions. It was often only at the end of a session that the photograph was finally taken. Many of Stein’s portraits show the traces of these conversations.

Two photographs: Martin Buber sitting in a chair, and Thomas Mann on his desk

Martin Buber (1878-1965), New York 1951; Thomas Mann (1875-1955), New York 1943
© Estate of Fred Stein


22 November 2013 - 4 May 2014


Libeskind Building, ground floor, Eric F. Ross Gallery


with the museum ticket (8 euros, reduced rate 3 euros)

More than 1,200 portraits were created in this way. Today, they read like a Who’s Who of prominent twentieth-century personalities. Fred Stein did not use dramatic light effects or retouch his negatives. For him, the point of portrait photography was to "create (through the medium of photography) a substitute for the living human being, a picture that says something about the outer and inner person," as he explained in a letter.

"In an Instant" Peter Stein talking at the opening event on 21 November 2013© Jewish Museum Berlin

Find out more about the following portraits:

Hannah Arendt
Albert Einstein
Willy Brandt
Arnold Zweig
Egon Erwin Kisch
Book cover "Fred Stein. Paris New York" with the photograph "Little Italy"

© Fred Stein/Kehrer publishers Heidelberg Berlin

Fred Stein. Paris New York,
ed. by Dawn Freer,
Heidelberg/Berlin: Kehrer 2013.

24 x 31 cm,
200 pages,
ISBN 978-3-86828-429-4
49.90 euros

Here, you can download the foreword by Cilly Kugelmann, as well as the contribution by curator Theresia Ziehe:

Events Accompanying the Exhibition

Part of the Exhibition Opening on 21 November 2013 (in German)© Jewish Museum Berlin

30 January 2014, 6 pm
"Dresden exiled me - so I became a photographer" - Curator tour
13 February 2014, 7 pm
Poetry and Sociology of the Street
The Work of Fred Stein in the Context of the Photography of his Period
13 March 2014, 6 pm
The Making of "In an Instant. Photographs by Fred Stein"
Guided Tour
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