Fred Stein was born on July 3, 1909 in Dresden, Germany. As a teenager he was deeply interested in politics and became an early anti-Nazi activist. He was a brilliant student, and went to Leipzig University, full of humanist ideals, to study law. He obtained a law degree in an impressively short time, but was denied admission to the German bar by the Nazi government for “racial and political reasons.” The threat of Fascism grew more and more dangerous and after the SS began making inquiries about him, Stein fled to Paris in 1933 with his new wife, Liselotte Salzburg, under the pretext of taking a honeymoon.
New York was a vibrant center of culture, and Stein seized the opportunity. He met and photographed writers, artists, scientists, politicians, and philosophers whose work he knew through his extensive reading and study. This enabled him to engage them in conversation during portrait sessions. He continued his fascination with humanity, walking through the streets of New York, documenting life from Fifth Avenue to Harlem. He worked unobtrusively and quickly, valuing the freedom to capture the telling moment that reveals the subject in its own light, not as incidental material for photographic interpretation.