Peter Stein, ASC on the Legacy of his Father, Still Photographer Fred Stein

by Kelcie Des Jardins

Kelcie Des Jardins and Peter Stein, ASCPeter Stein, ASC, has made a name for himself in the film industry, receiving praise for his work on films like Pet Semetary (1989) and Friday the 13th Part II (1981). Perhaps some of that talent is in his genes, as father Fred Stein was a gifted still photographer. His father is the focal point of Peter Stein’s latest project, the documentary “Moments in Time”. In this interview Stein tells us more about his father’s legacy and what he hopes the film will achieve.

Stein also hosts informative, hands-on workshops with, and is currently a professor in the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

What type of cameras were used to shoot this documentary, and why?

Peter Stein, ASC: I have been shooting this documentary for 4 years and have used many cameras that were borrowed, including a Sony VX100, a Panavision HVX 200, a Sony EX1, and now a Nikon D7000 (DSLR) that I own. I always tried to keep up with what was currently available and not too expensive. There is also a lot of stock footage from the 1930s and 1940s that was shot with 35mm news cameras included in the film.

How did this project begin, and how do you prepare for a documentary differently than other genres?

Peter Stein, ASC: I had been thinking for a long time about making a film about my father Fred Stein, who was a great documentary still photographer and had an amazing life story. He escaped from the Nazis in Germany and France, and finally came to the United States in 1941. His work is in many galleries and museums around the world, and he is becoming more and more well-known – mainly due to my efforts. He died really young in 1967 before photography really took off as an art form in the late 1970s and 80s. He was basically forgotten, and I was too involved with my own career to do much with his work. About 15 years ago, I decided it was time for me to start promoting his work, and now there has been a great resurgence in interest. Numerous pictures that he made are known, but his name was really forgotten.

In shooting a documentary, I like to think about, among other things, who the audience is that I am making the film for, what I want them to learn from the film, which scenes and interviews might help tell the story, and what visuals would work to keep interest up during interview voice overs.

Why the title “Moments in Time”?

Peter Stein, ASC: There is a quote of his that was once published in a 1954 New York Times article about his portraits, in which he said that as a photographer, “One moment is all you have. Like a hunter in search of a target, you look for the one sign that is more characteristic than all the others. The job  is  to  sum  up  what  a  man  is,  according  to  your  understanding of  him.  The painter  has  the advantage here, since he can work toward this objective through several leisurely sessions; the photographer has only one, and that one as brief as a split second.”

What would you like audiences to take away from the movie?

Peter Stein, ASC: I would like for people to understand that there are many extremely talented artists who have been forgotten or were never recognized. That it is not only the art establishment who should decide what art is relevant and lasting. I also want people who see the film to appreciate not only his art, but the great humanity my father showed in the most difficult times of the twenthieth century.

How did objectivity play a role in developing this film? What do you think of subjectivity versus objectivity in documentaries?

Peter Stein, ASC: Obviously I am biased when discussing my father’s talents as a photographer, but I tried to be objective in finding the right way to tell the story.

The story is also about my journey in bringing his work to prominence, and you have to think objectively in what to show and who to approach in order to make the film work for the audience. Beautiful pictures without substance or a good framework will become boring after a while even if it is set to great music. This not a political film, so there is not a good or bad that I needed to take a position on. That is where objectivity is more important. I wanted to educate in an entertaining way.

When can we expect the film to be released?

Peter Stein, ASC: The film is still in the editing process. My wife and daughter are cutting it (they are both talented editors), and they are doing it in-between other projects. The longer they delay, the more I keep shooting. There is a major museum exhibition this coming November and a beautiful coffee table book will be published at the same time. Of course I will be shooting both of these events, so there will be more to edit. The film keeps growing. Hopefully it will be finished in 2014. However, there will be a 10-minute version that will play in the museum on a loop for people to sit and watch and learn a little about my father.

Do you have any tips for shooting documentaries?

Peter Stein, ASC: Try to write the whole film out on paper before you shoot a frame. Write the narration or what you hope to get your interview subjects to say on the left side of the page. On the right side of the page write down some interesting visuals that you would need to get in order to make the words come to life. Certainly it will all change as you go along, but this is a good starting point. A far as camera work goes, if you are shooting interviews and can use your own lights,  keep the key light on the same side of the camera as the person asking the questions. As for shooting hand held, shooting wider and closer is much better for less shakiness than zooming in and being further away. Keep your legs bent at the knee and when moving, move like a dancer or a Tai Chi master!

Peter Stein, ASC teaches Advanced Cinematography Workshops at the NYC headquarters.

For more information about Fred Stein’s work, visit

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