Jay and Deanie Stein are a refreshingly close couple. They have worked together for decades in Jay’s eponymous family business – founded by his grandfather in 1908 in Greenville, Mississippi, and today, thanks to their efforts, a successful chain of nearly 300 department stores across the US.
So when the Steins began collecting art, it was naturally going to be a collaborative affair. They initially dabbled in 20th-century American impressionists, among them “a great number of important painters, such as John Singer Sargent, George Bellows and William Merritt Chase,” says Jay. But 10 years ago they were inspired to focus their collecting efforts in another direction: photography. “We were walking around the New York Winter Antiques Show when I happened upon this well-informed guy who was talking about photographs,” recalls Jay. “I went in just to listen to him – he was incredibly captivating. I introduced myself, not realising that we would buy our first, second, third picture from him; I just wanted to meet him.”
“We were the only photo gallery invited to exhibit there. I suppose we stood out a bit.” So says Peter Fetterman, the gallerist in question, in response to Jay’s glowing description, but his diffidence belies his status as one of the leading names in classic 20th-century photography, with his Santa Monica gallery having evolved from his own fascination with the medium. “I bought my first photo in 1979, the year I arrived in LA,” says Fetterman. “It was The Heiress, by Max Yavno, depicting the Hollywood premiere of the 1949 movie, and I paid $400 for it. I had a total net worth of $2,000. I was insane.” But another purchase followed shortly after: two works by Heinrich Kühn, the Austrian-German pioneer of fine-art photography, bought on a whim at a sale at Sotheby’s in London. Fifteen years later, he sold them both and set up his gallery.
The list of notables Fetterman has exhibited is impressive – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis, André Kertész and Lillian Bassman, as well as a number of lesser-known masters. “My mission is to promote these great European photographers,” he says. “It’s the only medium in the art world where you can buy the same piece as The Getty museum, Tate, MoMA. I would love to own a Giacometti sculpture, but I don’t have a spare $120m. I can, however, buy a great piece of photography for $2,000, $5,000, $20,000.”
This accessibility also appealed to the Steins, whose decade-long relationship with Fetterman has resulted in a highly personal collection, featuring around 40 acquisitions from his gallery and including some of 20th-century photography’s greatest names. All their works are monochrome and intimate in scale, including their first purchase, a misty 1948 view of a Left Bank shopping street by Willy Ronis, bought for $1,200 (and now worth around $5,500, says Fetterman). “Almost all of our photographs are from the 1940s and ’50s,” says Jay. “They take us back to a time that was a bit less complicated.” What drives them to buy a work, says Deanie, is “an emotional connection – pieces that tug at our heartstrings and make us happy”. But this doesn’t mean the Steins shy away from grittier documentary photography, as witnessed by the powerful 1942 image, by British photographer Bert Hardy, of children being evacuated from London’s Paddington station.
“Every piece in this house tells a story,” says Jay, referring to their Beverly Hills home, where most of their collection hangs, complemented by a minimalist design scheme, a few abstract modernist paintings by the likes of Syd Solomon and Dan Christensen and the odd antique. The rest of the collection is spread across their homes in Jacksonville, Florida, and Belgravia. “Our love of London is reflected in some of our photographs,” says Deanie, noting a 1950 image of a cat warming itself on a hot car in Islington by British photojournalist Thurston Hopkins, and work by Wolfgang Suschitzky. “Suschitzky was a world-class cinematographer, but he also created one of the greatest bodies of photographic work on London in the 1930s,” says Fetterman, the main representative of his work in the US. “His prints are completely undervalued in the marketplace, costing around $2,000 to $4,000.”
After a decade of collaboration, Fetterman feels he has divined the Steins’ tastes and interests. “They coincide with mine – basically, beauty and humanity.” A personal highlight for the Steins is Cartier-Bresson’s 1947 portrait of William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi. “He is one of my favourite writers,” says Deanie, while Jay, coincidentally, encountered the French photographer in his hometown, aged 20. “I met him at a party and had lunch with him the next day. I didn’t realise who he was at the time. Life comes full circle.”
There is one Cartier-Bresson image the Steins had longed to acquire: the interrogation of a French collaborator during the liberation. “Oh my God, did it speak to us,” says Jay, who with his wife was very involved in founding the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. “That is one of his most powerful images,” concurs Fetterman, “and one of the rarest. But I managed to find a print for $25,000. One has to follow leads like a forensic detective.”
Cartier-Bresson has had a further influence on the collection: before his death in 2004 he introduced Fetterman to a contemporary Finnish photographer, whose romantic approach to landscape has piqued the Steins’ interest. “I think Pentti Sammallahti is currently the best buy in photography,” Fetterman asserts. “You can acquire a master print created by him in a dark room for $1,200. He doesn’t care about fame or money. He won’t let us raise his prices.” As Jay quips: “He’s an Ansel Adams you can afford.”