Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Storm is brewing over Berlin today. With wind blowing down its streets at up to 100 km/h possibly even for the next couple of days, it might be a good idea to choose nice indoor activities for the afternoon or the weekend. And with a visit to the museum you can almost never go wrong. You might risk being bored, you might be even all sweaty and exhausted afterwards but not if you choose well: not if you go to see Fred Stein´s exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg.
Stein, who like other famous Jewish German photographers Alfred Eisenstaedt and Roman Vishniac, had to leave Germany to escape Nazi persecution in the 1930´s, produced thousands of images which even today, in the fast-faster-faster days of digitalisation and the Net never fail to astound.
They are simple and crisp. They reflect the world instead of creating or manipulating it. They show people as they were, not as they wished they had been. Stein never retouched the negatives or tinkered with them in any other way and that is exactly what makes the photos so honest.
In his by now classic portraits of famous personalities of his day – Hannah Arendt, Dali, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Willy Brandt – you will find neither elaborate lighting (Stein preferred natural or, if need be, minimal artificial light) nor props. There is no dramatic staging behind the shoot. Looking at those black and white photos of people you feel how he worked: relaxed, unpretentious, uncomplicated. And that is how he captured his subjects. They are special not because they look special but because there is something about them that holds your eye. Something they owe to the man who shot the picture.
The same kind of uncomplicated but sometimes almost unbearably painful beauty can be found in his street photography of which Fred Stein was a pioneer. It all began in Paris. Armed with his Leica – a wedding present for and from himself and his wife, Lilo Salzburg – he began his photographic ventures into the streets of the French capital where the newly-wed couple escaped in 1933. Soon after their wedding in Dresden in August of the same year the young socialist and an active opponent of Hitler´s party received a secret warning that most likely saved his and his young wife´s lives. A friend invited them to stay with her in France and the Steins immediately took the invitation. To leave Germany undisturbed they pretended to be going on their honeymoon instead.
Once there, Fred and Lilo Stein had to build their new existence. Fred, who read law at the university in Leipzig, was again unable to practice his profession. But unlike back in Dresden it was not due to the Nazi ban on all Jewish lawyers but because of the language difficulties. Stein decided to become a photographer instead. He opened a little studio, offering portraits and studio images to make a living. At the same time he made daily excursions into this new, fascinating city and took pictures that made immortal the time that was about to end.
In 1939 the photographer was interned along with thousands of other Jews residing in France and spent the next two years in and out of the camps around Paris. In 1941 Stein managed to escape. Travelling mostly on foot and by night, sleeping in abandoned sheds, he made it to the south of France in the hope of leaving the country as soon as possible. However, he would not have left without his wife and Ruth, the infant daughter born during his captivity. The secret message he sent Lilo gave her a signal to set off southwards as well – she got through by pretending to be French. Once re-united, hiding in train toilets, they made it to Marseilles where the Emergency Rescue Committee issued them with the necessary visas. On May 7th, 1941 Fred, Lilo and Ruth left Europe on board of SS Winnipeg, one of the last evacuee ships to sail from France.
In their luggage they had the necessities for their baby, the Leica, some prints and most of the negatives.
Once safe in New York, Stein began working as a photographer again. To his precious Leica he added a new camera, middle-format (square format) Rolleiflex with which he immortalised another long-closed chapter in a big city life: New York in the 1940´s and 1950´s. Many of those unique and at the same touching and witty images can now be seen at the exhibition. They are part of the 130 piece collection selected for the event.
They are beautifully displayed next to the – classic by now – portraits he captured: Mann, Chagall, de Koonig, Marlene Dietrich, David Ben Gurion, Georgia O´Keeffe. They all emanate extreme sense of calm and thoughtfulness. Which tells you something not only about the subjects but also about this admirable man behind the camera. Who despite his dramatic fate and the horror he managed to escape succeeded in holding the world literally still.
The exhibition In An Instant – Photographs by Fred Strein can be visited until March 23rd, 2014 at the Eric F. Ross Gallery in Libeskind Building of the Jewish Museum Berlin in Lindenstrasse 9-14, Berlin-Kreuzberg.
Most images provided by Fred Stein Archive run by photographer´s son, Peter Stein.