was an American photographer noted for his iconic portraits of Hollywood stars, as well as his war photography while serving as a U.S. Army Ranger with "Darby's Rangers"
during the North African and Italian campaigns in World War II.
Settling in Los Angeles after the war, Stern was staff photographer for Look
magazine. He also worked for Life
magazine and Collier's
. He was present on numerous film productions as still photographer, and in that capacity took photographs of a huge cross-section of the film community. Stern's images of Marilyn Monroe
, James Dean
, Marlon Brando
and even musician Louis Armstrong
have become widely recognized icons.
A lifelong smoker, Stern died at the age of 95 in Los Angeles from COPD and congestive heart failure which he had been battling for over three and a half decades.
I’ve taken mountains and mountains of stuff, which I occasionally describe as mountains and mountains of shit. It so happens, there’s a little gem here and a little gem there. You dig out those gems.
-- Phil Stern
Phil Stern created portraits of stars of the silver screen – including James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe – that were both iconic and intimate. His subjects looked natural, even self-absorbed or introverted.
The lower half of his most famous portrait of James Dean
(1955) is a black cable-knit jumper; the upper half reveals Dean’s face only from halfway up his ears. His eyes are rolled up, framed by straight eyebrows. The white plane of Dean’s forehead under a shiny shock of tousled hair, and the pale background, inevitably draw attention to those mischievous eyes, bisecting the frame and challenging the viewer.
By contrast, one 1953 image of Marilyn Monroe
shows her as wistful and withdrawn, looking into the distance with an air of abstraction, her hands nervously fingering the loosened bow at the waist of her gown. As Stern told Entertainment Weekly
in 1993: “I was never interested in the glamour, I was interested in the tears and agony behind it.”
His friendship with John Wayne
gave him access to perhaps his most subversively casual image. It shows Wayne lighting up, eyeline going straight to a woman’s bared leg. But it’s not what he’s doing but what he’s wearing that draws the viewer’s eye: the cowboy hat and loose jacket conform to type, but below the waist the over-constricting gingham shorts, plump legs and girly espadrilles are a risible disaster.
Stern’s pictures of musicians are very different in character. Formal ones – such as of the Rat Pack
on stage in 1962 – are mainly of lineups. One senses his preference for the moodiness of Sinatra
alone, shot from behind and dressed – as if by Raymond Chandler
– in a hat and long mackintosh, pacing down a bleakly dirty corridor towards a dead end. Another Rat Pack member, Sammy Davis Jr
, performed a rooftop diamond-shaped jump. Despite his tightly drawn up (and shiny) brogues, his white outfit and right-angled arms with their delicately spread fingers are reminiscent of a Hindu dancer (1947).
Stern loved jazz, and he photographed Louis Armstrong
in a coincidentally similar pose, not jumping but perched on a stool, trumpet upended on his knee as he looks down and laughs into his chest (1957). Stern enjoyed the image so much that he made a lifesize cardboard cutout of it, and had his own portrait taken alongside. A less artfully composed shot shows Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
together, in full swing, singing at a studio recording.
There was more to Stern’s career than showbiz, however. He enlisted as a combat photographer in the second world war, and won a Purple Heart for his courage and willingness to risk his life picturing infantrymen under fire. Stern documented US troops advancing through north Africa, and was invalided home with severe shrapnel wounds to his arms and neck. In 1943 he returned to cover the Allied invasion of Sicily for Stars and Stripes
, the US army magazine. According to his biographer, the journalist Herbert Mitgang
: “His pictures of the invasion and its aftermath remain among the most outstanding documents in the annals of combat photography in any war, before or since.”
The postwar decades saw a media boom: the heyday of photo magazines and blockbuster movies aimed at a predominantly young mass audience. Stern rode the publicity of a new generation of stars who became, at least in part through his attention, poster pinups. Interviewed later by the Los Angeles Times
, he mused on his transfer from war to celebrity photography. “ [The war] very well might have helped me get access ... I don’t really know for sure, because some of them wanted publicity so bad that you didn’t have to have a Purple Heart for that. All you had to have was an expensive camera.”
Source: The Guardian
Look, Matisse I ain’t. You know how they have on the invitations, “a reception for the artist will be held at...” And I say, “Look, you gotta change this. I’m not an artist. I’m a photographer, a skilled craftsman.”
-- Phil Stern