Photos by Phil Stern/CPI
Phil Stern is a tough old cuss posing as a tough old cuss. The 84-year-old photographer’s best-known images, of James Dean peering over the collar of a black sweater and of Marlon Brando in jeans and leather jacket during filming of The Wild One, are instantly recognizable even though the man is not. Although his photographs have been widely anthologized and a new collection of his images, A Life’s Work, is just out from PowerHouse Books, he is hardly a household name, like Herb Ritz or Richard Avedon. He pretends not to care. “What is a photographer?” Stern asks while sitting at a cluttered table in the hub of his compact casita-archive across the street from Raleigh Studios, on a dead-end mew just south of Melrose. “Some dumb-fucking, uneducated, illiterate schmuck.” This is the moment when the pose shows through. Stern isn’t being autobiographical. He’s too clever for that. He is fishing for a bit of flattery — and he knows eventually he’ll get it. Looking at A Life’s Work, he says, “I’ve said this to others: The product is so nice, the design is so compelling, that if I supplied them for the content a barrel of dog shit, it would still be a beautiful book.” Pause. “At this point I expect you to say, ‘Hey, Phil, it’s not dog shit, it’s really good.’”
A compact, powerful man, in a crisp blue striped shirt, gray slacks and black house slippers, Stern has an unlined face, quirky eyebrows and a pair of prominent bumps on his right wrist, a memento from World War II. But before that, when he was 16 or 17, he apprenticed in a New York City photography studio, cleaning walls and floors, mixing chemicals, loading plates into holders. He had taken the job “determined to learn a trade,” by which he meant “not a doctor, not a professor of literature — a carpenter, a plumber, something like that.” By the time he was developing prints, he was “hooked. I knew this is what I wanted . . . to work with blank white areas and make images appear.” Weegee became an influence, as did the great masters hanging on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then came the war, from which Stern’s fame grew.
His career spans more than six decades, from staff sergeant attached to the most courageous battalion in World War II — Darby’s Rangers, who led major actions in the Mediterranean theater — to a legendary stint with jazz impresario Norman Granz, to capturing the exploits of the Rat Pack and a slew of ’50s and ’60s Hollywood icons. His eye is drawn to the everyday, the workmanlike, the prosaic, which he believes provides poignancy — one is tempted to say humanity — to subjects that are otherwise too encompassing or too self-aware to allow for much insight. In a searing image of the burnt and decimated remains of two German weapons carriers attacked by U.S. troops in Sicily in July 1943, the carnage of war is as unmistakable as it is in one of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings of Napoleon’s 1808 incursion into Spain. What makes Stern’s shot eternal are the Italian peasants guiding a horse-drawn wagon uphill toward the carnage, as if the realities of rural life and modern warfare had little or nothing to do with each other. This detail, of the peasants carrying on as if they were a part of a much longer processional, of time immemorial, is what gives Stern’s photograph its power. Death is an everyday occurrence — whether it arrives by shelling or by old age, in one’s sleep.
Stern knows his own photograph well. The remains of Rommel’s charred and truncated troops contain one of those oddities of war: Somehow, one soldier’s suspenders made it through the conflagration practically unscathed. On first glance, this would seem to be a salient part of the image — but Stern brushes it off with a cruel joke. “Germans made really good suspenders,” he says, a hint of gravel in his suave baritone. “What I find interesting is what’s going on here,” he says, pointing to the Sicilian peasants urging their nag onward. Then he adds, “If you would ask me, ‘What was your thinking at the time?,’ I don’t know.” His candor is complete. No compliment is sought.
On March 25, 1943, a round of German shells tore into Stern during the Battle of El Guettar, in Tunisia, puncturing his hand, leg, chest and neck. His head was practically severed, but Stern recovered, was awarded a Purple Heart, rejoined Darby’s Rangers and continued covering the infantrymen — the privates and corporals and sergeants who did the fighting and the dying. Stern says flatly of the war, “In my life, it’s more significant than Marilyn Monroe.”
Anita Ekberg, 1955, at post-premiere party
Yet Monroe, like many other stars, is inextricably bound up in the photographer’s life. Stern, who thinks of himself in his Hollywood days as something of a paparazzo, captured Monroe in what is now considered a classic series of off-guard moments at the Shrine Auditorium in 1953. Startled, pensive, laughing, she almost seems natural. The shots have never stopped selling — and only go up in price. But Stern, who says he never worked with any star “on my own terms,” regards Monroe as a “piece of merchandise that Hollywood created. I think of this relatively nondescript girl. Her light-brownish hair was chemically augmented to give her the blond. They got her special brassieres, and they told her how to wiggle her ass.” His working-class New York upbringing shows through.
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