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Issue: Issue Winter 1999/2000

Through the Eyes of Phil Stern


Stern is one of a revered core of photographers who worked during Hollywood's golden years and now, nearing 80, is "recycling his youth."

"Whenever a star like Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin or John Wayne dies, my pictures are used," he says. "When Sinatra died, they were in Life's special tribute edition, and in almost every major magazine. It's amazing." His photos of icons like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean have become a small cottage industry.

Certainly, in forty years on the Hollywood scene, both as "unit" photographer for over 200 films and freelancer for Life, Look and Colliers, he's probably photographed every movie star of note.

But its his fresh, timeless, "of the moment" style, often compared to Henri Cartier Bresson or 50's visionary Robert Frank, and "one-of-a-kind" photos that largely account for his current sought-after-status.

"I got the stars after George Hurrell was through with them, or they were putting on make-up before he came," quips the Bronx-raised Stern, referring to the well-known photographer whose air-brushed glamour shots were the 30's-40's vogue.

What changed that, he says, was the advent of "Life" magazine (where he tarted free-lancing in 1941).

"In the old days, the photo editor might be the secretary to the publisher or just anybody! Then "Life" came out with a more sophisticated view of pictures, hiring photo editors with expertise in visuals, which forced other magazines to change."

Stern would be assigned by a magazine to snap a star "in action," on the set.

"There were requirements: you had to get closeups, or get two people close together and so on. But if you were curious, you would just take pictures that you thought were interesting. You'd watch, camera pointed, and try to get the most important event of the moment."

Such moments included John Wayne and John Ford talking in a shadowed doorway during the filming of "The Alamo," a serious, bespectacled James Dean, a young Brando, in full "Wild One" regalia, Garland making-up in her dressing room during "A Star is Born," Frank Sinatra and pals wolfing down spaghetti during the filming of "Guys and Dolls," Davis and Crawford (sans make-up) at a reading for "Baby Jane," even a visibly pregnant Marilyn Monroe on the Goldwyn lot, all collected in his 1993 book, "Phil Stern's Hollywood."

That Monroe picture, taken with a telephoto lens, happened by accident, when Stern was doing a story on "What Sam Goldwyn sees from his window." "Marilyn came walking by all in white, wearing a kimono. The wind blew it open, revealing a very pregnant Monroe."

Another favorite shows Sinatra lighting John F. Kennedy's cigarette at JFK's 1961 inaugural dinner, where Sinatra was entertainment director.

"We weren't allowed to use flashes, so the only lighting was the flare of the match. But, it has become memorable because of the intimacy of those two guys at that moment."

He counts his relationship with Sinatra, who he photographed for nearly half a century, as one of the more pleasurable of his career.

"We were both young together and we got old together," he says.

The highlight, of course, came when Frank appointed Stern to be official photographer for the Kennedy Inaugural.

"The entertainers took up an entire floor of the Washington Hilton, and I was the only photographer allowed up there, so material I got from that, and from rehearsals and entertainment -- was quite rich."

He also enjoyed palship with John Wayne, whose film company hired him after Stern's participation in War Bond drives as a wounded combat photographer (he was with "Darby's Rangers," working and acting in the film of the same name).*

"I worked with Wayne all over Europe, Africa and Mexico. We got drunk together. He'd call me a bomb-throwing Bolshevik and I called him a raving right-wing Neanderthal! We were an odd couple!" 

One star he liked was Bette Davis. During "Baby Jane," he says, while a queenly Crawford traveled with a full entourage, "Davis left with just Davis."

.. "She was rough and she could be difficult, but she had character and a definite point of view."

He also recalls a kind Marlene Dietrich during "Witness for the Prosecution," when his camera jammed and the directors were pressuring him, coming up and saying, "Don't let these people rattle you. You're an artist."

But it's James Dean -- who he met and hung out with after Dean accidentally rammed his motorcycle into Stern's car on Sunset Boulevard -- who has been, he jokes, "my old-age annuity.".

"He was trying to be different, so he did nutty things. A lot of photo things he instigated. Between us, we got material."

One now-famous shot shows Dean peeking out from his sweater. In another, the star raises his Converse sneakered-feet in the air. It originally netted Stern about $125.

Then, in 1987, the president of Converse happened to see a poster of it (illegally reproduced), in a mall, and immediately located Stern. It wound up in a famous Converse ad campaign and has been used in postcards and posters worldwide. "Ultimately, I've made over $150,000 on it," says Stern.

He also sells to fine-arts collectors (through Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles), who include Tom Cruise and Madonna.

"People pay obscene amounts of money for Hollywood prints. I blink and can hardly believe I'm part of it."

"I have an occasional dream," he says, "that I reach those pearly gates and they're all there – Sammy, Frank, Dean, John Wayne, and they're saying, 'Stern, you S.O.B. – you're getting rich off us!'"

On balance, though, he's grateful for the richness of experience, although, he admits, he never captured that "perfect image."

"You know what it is, but just can't get it. Still, you keep searching. I haven't found it yet."

Photography by Phil Stern