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John Wayne in gingham hot pants is another image Stern managed to slide into the popular consciousness. It seems all wrong to see the Duke dressed like Annette Funicello. There he is, though: white 10-gallon hat, striking a match, a cowboy in drag. The twisted sexuality is what Stern caught, but he doesn’t romanticize how he got it. “That particular picture was shot in Acapulco,” he begins. “[Wayne] bought a hotel there. He invited me there, as he did other writers, photographers. It was a big tax write-off. And he got publicity. All these people knew they were in demand.”
Incongruously, Stern is debunking Hollywood while seated in what might be called his gallery, a small room with polished oak floors, white plaster walls, covered with life-size cutout silver-nitrate prints of Monroe, Brando, Dean, Bogart, Sammy Davis Jr. (from the famous rooftop session of the showman leaping in the air) and Louis Armstrong (the immortal pose of the performer seated on a stool, holding his trumpet, looking down at the floor). Plenty of star power for a guy who seems nonplused.
Perhaps the word to describe him is bemused. Suffering from emphysema, continuously trailing an oxygen tube — “I’ve got my own private oxygen bar” — he relishes snapping at the hands that feed him. “Say you are interested in an image. For example, that Sammy Davis Jr. leaping,” Stern says, turning toward the black-and-white on the wall across the room. “An 11-by-14 silver print is $1,400. Let’s say you can’t afford $1,400. Your stomach sinks. ‘The amount of groceries I can buy for 1,400 bucks. I can feed my kids for the next six months.’ [But] look, Fotofolio has made a fabulous poster of that image, done with duotone — it’s superb. They sell it for 15 to 20 dollars — a life-size print. The tonal value’s as good or better than the original. Then I meet some movie actor who has learned a few things about silver print, and he’ll say, ‘Is that a vintage print?’ I’ll say, ‘No.’ It’s 1,400 bucks, he’s ready to buy it, but he’ll say, ‘Do you happen to have a vintage print of that same thing?’ You know, he’ll pay up to 3,000 bucks for it. And the print is really dog-eared, on the back it’s stamped ‘Paris Match.’ That’s the bullshit mystique. All that stuff has value. I’ve gotten lots out of it.”
He sucks in another dose of oxygen. “I know what the difference is: One is sold like an antique. It’s got the patina of age. And the photographer who has made the picture has himself pretty much become the artifact that his pictures are.” Stern is not grousing. “This is my old-age pension,” he says. He is amused.
Phil Stern will sign his book at an exhibition of his work at ArcLight Cinema on Sunday, November 2, from 2 to 4 p.m.Rebel Without a Cause will screen at 4 p.m. Info: (323) 464-1478. The exhibition, curated by Fahey/Klein Gallery, continues through November 18.
A LIFE’S WORK | By PHIL STERN | PowerHouse Books | 256 pages | $75 hardcover