Date of Birth: 3 September 1919, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Birth Name: Philip Stern
Nicknames: Phil ‘Snapdragon’ Stern
The photographer 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 half-way 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By contrast, one 1953 image of Marilyn Monroe shows her as wistful and withdrawn, looking into the distance with an air of abstraction, her hands nervously fingering the loosened bow at the waist of her gown.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.”
Born in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants, Alix and May, Stern was later to reference Arthur Miller in describing his father as “a salesman, a la Willy Loman. I wanted to find the best way to avoid becoming my father.” The family went to live in the Bronx when Stern was 11, and he left school at the age of 16, preferring to experiment with a Kodak camera his mother had won in a free promotion. He took a job sweeping up at a Canal Street photo studio and soon acquired the skills necessary to supply “a readership that required a certain kind of picture” for the pulp Police Gazette.
At the age of 19 he shot his first reportage assignment on Kentucky coalminers for a new weekly. When Friday magazine opened a West Coast office, Stern moved to Los Angeles and started his stellar Hollywood career with a feature on Orson Welles shooting Citizen Kane. In 1941 Stern had his first spread in Life magazine, to which he contributed as long as it lasted. From the 1940s onwards, he expanded his freelance reach, regularly contributing also to Look, Collier’s, Vanity Fair and Variety.
Stern’s connections enabled him to work as a stills cameraman on more than 200 films, including Guys and Dolls, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; to contribute pictures to hundreds of book and record covers, including those for albums by Sinatra, Armstrong and Fitzgerald; and to touch on the world of politics. When Sinatra assumed responsibility for President John F Kennedy’s inaugural gala in 1960, Stern paused in shooting stills for The Devil at 4 O’Clock to deposit a note in his dressing room. It read: “Read the news today. I hereby apply for the job of resident paparazzo on your inaugural project.” It worked, and Sinatra hired Stern for the inaugural ball. His shot of Sinatra deferentially lighting Kennedy’s cigarette in a swath of smoke went around the world.
Stern was ever careful not to get too close to the stars he befriended. In his heyday he acknowledged: “Someone who knows the scene might say I was part of the gang in that I was acceptable to them, but that’s the extent of it. I was not on their A-list, but from time to time I’d be invited. Technically I was one of them for an hour and a half.”
Stern lived most of his life in a modest bungalow near the Paramount studios, cluttered with decades’ worth of photographic prints, contact sheets and negatives. In 2001, he donated his library to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. When asked what made a good picture, he gave a puzzled answer: “I wish I knew. I could keep taking more.”