Stefan Lorant was born in Budapest in 1901. At the collapse of the Hungarian government to fascism in 1919, Lorant left for Czechoslovakia. There he was helped by none other than Franz Kafka to find a job playing the violin in a movie house orchestra. Before long, he moved to Vienna and began work as a still photographer for a Hungarian filmmaker. "During the day I made photographs in the studio; at night I studied the intricacies of the movie camera." At 19 years of age, Lorant became known as a leading cameraman in Europe with his first film, The Life of Mozart. Over the next few years, he developed skills as a scriptwriter and director as well, and made a total of 14 films between Vienna and Berlin.
While working in Berlin in 1921, a young woman approached Lorant and asked for a screen test. It turned out badly, and Lorant told her that he "did not believe she should try a career in the movies, that she had no gifts for that." Well, the twenty-year old woman turned out to be Marlene Dietrich and, despite the snub, the two later became friends.
In 1925, Lorant left filmmaking and began a career in journalism by writing articles for various newspapers in Berlin. Appointed chief editor of a Munich weekly in 1928, he was responsible for making the Muncher Illustrierte Presse the first modern photojournalistic paper in Europe.
With the Nazi invasion of Bavaria in 1933, Lorant's political commentaries enraged Hitler who ordered him taken into "protective custody." Never charged with a crime or taken before a court, he was imprisoned for nearly a year. The Hungarian government came to his rescue, and Lorant was released and began editing a paper in Budapest. Based on his prison experience, Lorant wrote I Was Hitler's Prisoner and took the manuscript to London in 1934, where it was published a year later.
Barely literate in the English language when he first arrived in Britain, Lorant shortly became editor of Odham's Weekly Illustrated. This was the first popular illustrated paper in England and a model for American picture magazines such as Life and Look. In 1937, Lorant founded Pocket Publications in London and published the successful pocket magazine, Lilliput. Close on its heels came publication of the Picture Post, which Lorant, as editor-in-chief, fashioned into a popular illustrated paper.
Having met and admired Winston Churchill, Lorant wrote articles about him in the Picture Post. Churchill also contributed articles and, in 1939, suggested Lorant devote a special issue on the United States, "to explain the Americans to the English, how they really are." This afforded Lorant the opportunity to visit America for the first time, and so he sailed into New York at Christmas, 1939. With office space and staff lent to him by publisher Henry Luce, Lorant worked intensely for three weeks and returned to London with over 200 pounds of American images. Several months later, a 160-page issue on America was published, and it was well-received in both countries.
Later in 1940, Stefan Lorant left Europe again to explore America more fully. After deciding to stay for good, he made New York his base and began studying American history. Lorant's studies paid off when he began publishing illustrated books on American history. His publications would eventually include: The Glorious Burden, about the American presidency; The New World, with illustrations of early America; picture biographies of American presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt; and, of course, Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City.
In the late 1940s, while vacationing in Saratoga, Lorant was invited to lunch by Edgar Kaufmann and his wife, who were impressed with his prison diary. Thus began a series of visits by Lorant to the Kaufmann estate at Fallingwater and by the Kaufmanns to Lorant's home in Lenox, Massachusetts. While he was a guest at Kaufmann's home in Palm Springs, Lorant was asked to write a book about Pittsburgh's history, to which he replied: "I don't know anything about Pittsburgh! I was there only once, on my second visit to America in 1940, and I found it terrible! The sky was dark, the electric lamps were burning in the morning, the air was thick with grime. I could not breathe, my eyes watered. I went back to the station and got on the next train to Chicago. I never wanted to see Pittsburgh again." Kaufmann described how the city had changed for the better since 1940. He was insistent about the book and finally invited Lorant to Pittsburgh to take a look for himself in 1954. Lorant was driven all over the city by Kaufmann's chauffeur and fell in love with the place. He subsequently rented a house on Mount Washington and started to write a history that would commemorate the bicentennial and rebirth of Pittsburgh.
Lorant began his research at the Historical Room of the Carnegie Library in Oakland, as well as the Pennsylvania Room which was then located at the Carnegie Library on the North Side. Lorant also perused the files of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, which was then housed at the University of Pittsburgh. Lorant also looked outside the city for pictures. From Harrisburg and Philadelphia to Boston and New York, Lorant looked everywhere for pictures of Pittsburgh with assistance from historians and newspapermen. Although Pittsburgh repositories had photograph collections, they documented particular periods in the city's history, and Lorant felt there was "not enough for a comprehensive work." Instead, he relied on institutions such as the British Museum in London which provided images of the original plans for Fort Pitt. In addition, "The Illustrated London News in London and the Illustrierte Zeitung of Leipzig preserved photographs of Pittsburgh in their archives. The editors were kind enough and sent me the material I asked for."
It was also difficult to locate photographs of events in the early 20th century. "In the 1936 flood, the picture collections of the city's newspapers were inundated by the waters, and what water and mud did not destroy, efficiency experts did. To create more space for staff and equipment, much of the authentic photographic material was thrown into wastebaskets."
In order to capture the spirit of Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Lorant chose to hire W. Eugene Smith, one of the most eminent photographers of the 20th century, for this part of the project. Lorant lived in the two upper floors of a house on Grandview Avenue, which commanded a magnificent view of the city. The house belonged to a Pittsburgh executive who was an amateur photographer, and it even had a darkroom in the basement. Lorant offered Smith the ground floor, expecting his houseguest to stay only a few weeks. The weeks, however, turned into months, and things sometimes got uncomfortable, as when Smith's recordplaying drove Lorant out of his apartment. Smith would "shoot" all day and develop his film late into the night. To Lorant's dismay, "At two o'clock in the morning he'd be playing a Bartok quartet." Smith finally moved to his own digs in Shadyside. Many of the photographs Smith took in Pittsburgh became famous, and his efforts even won him a Guggenheim fellowship.
Edgar Kaufmann died in 1955 and so was unable to see his project realized. After a full decade of research and writing, the Pittsburgh book was finally published in 1964. Periodically revised thereafter, a fourth, updated edition was released in 1988.
Lorant was granted an honory doctor's degree from Knox College in 1958. He went on to graduate study at Harvard University where he received his MA in 1961. In 1974, his book Sieg Heil, an illustrated history of Germany from the time of Bismarck to the end of the Third Reich was published. In the early 1980s, Lorant began working on an autobiography, I Lived Six Lives, recounting his experiences in six countries. Stefan Lorant is widely regarded as the first major editor of modern photojournalism.