“Back in the Fifties, for me to photograph Marilyn Monroe, it was a catch-as-catch-can situation. I did not have her at my disposal the way some photographers did. So the only time I could get her was either surreptitiously or at a photo opportunity. And in that case, it was important for me to try to get a photograph that doesn’t look the same as the others. So I had to watch carefully and if she did anything unusual with her face or expression, I had to be alert enough to snap it.”
Nowadays, there’s no real medium between intrusive paparazzi photos and the stifled celebrity portrait. Even photoshoots may lead the subject to create a persona, and are often dictated by behind the scenes politics: celebrity publicists or magazine staff that aim to procure a certain image to the point that it’s simply another acting job for the star. Phil Stern, however, created a medium free of this. Throughout his career he contributed to various publications, including LIFE, LOOK, and Colliers, photographing anything but the mundane. Even if he simply captured a star relaxing on set, there’s a dialogue or background story present. During World War II, Stern joined the army as a combat photographer for “Darby’s Rangers.” It was possibly this experience that led to his photojournalist approach with his later subjects. Following the war, he continued to depict Darby’s Rangers for LIFE, and began working as a still photographer in Hollywood, with his work behind the scenes of approximately 100 film sets including the classics Citizen Kane, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, and numerous others.
Regardless of the praise his images have received, Stern claims his photographic magic and his method of stumbling upon the occupation was simply fate : “I grew up during the Depression. My dad was a salesman, a la Willy Loman. I wanted to find the best possible way to avoid becoming my father. I was determined to learn a trade. Living in New York, there was a big world out there, and a lot of empty spaces to put images. It was just the fickle finger of fate.” Beyond his talent, this unconventional approach to celebrity photography should be noted, and as David Fahey, a friend of Stern’s puts it, “He wouldn’t allow the orchestrated P.R. photograph. He made authentically real photographs, and in the context of Hollywood, to make a real picture is odd.” Although retired, I’d like to believe that Stern’s approach to photography continues to exist, at least to some degree. LIFE , for one, has continued to feature a number of non-obstrusive and insightful photography features on famous figures (ex. here and here). Considering how the climate of celebrity photography has changed since Stern’s day, primarily with social media (including its use by the stars themselves) and paparazzi, naturally depicting actors in the modern day proves to be a difficult task.
A 25-year-old Audrey Hepburn with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and guest at the premiere of A Star Is Born, 1954. On Hepburn, Stern states: “That was a symmetrical face, very well designed by God or nature. There’s no doubt that she was a beautiful woman, but in a nonsensual way.”
“At 7:30am., I was cruising west on Sunset Boulevard, heading for Life magazine’s photo lab on the Strip. Coming down Laurel Canyon was a crazy motorcyclist who was driving through a red light. We were on a collision course. We both braked and careered through the intersection. I cam close to killing him – just a few inches saved his life. I stuck my head out the window, screaming profanities, as he got up off his bike with a dopey grin on his face. It was James Dean. We ended up having a two-hour breakfast at Schwab’s Drug Store, and I invited him over to the Guys and Dolls set, where I had a still gallery rigged to shot Brando and Sinatra. Dean was fascinated by cameras, and came along.”
Alma and Alfred Hitchcock. The pair met working at a Paramount studio, and collaborated on work throughout their lives.
Rita Moreno (aka Anita) on the set of West Side Story, 1961.
A still from JFK’s inauguration and cheeky request to photograph the event and following gala.
Natalie Wood in her trailer on the set of This Property Is Condemned. “That’s one hell of a trailer, isn’t it? Natalie was Russian by origin. She spoke perfect Russian. Her family was Russian, and when the Bolshoi Ballet came to L.A. in 1959, they stayed at her house. That was a big thing, considering the political climate at the time.”
Sophia Loren on the set of Legend of the Lost. “There was a scene where she was scantily clad, and she broke down in tears because they asked her to shave her armpits. Hollywood has changed all that.”
Jackie Robinson in the midst of filming The Jackie Robinson Story, 1949.
Lauren Bacall with daughter Leslie Bogart.
Dorothoy Dandridge behind the scenes of Porgy and Bess, 1959. The role earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress , yet she lost to Marilyn Monroe.
Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope on the set of On the Road to Hong Kong, 1961. Stern created a series of photographs with stars reading the Daily Forward, the daily Yiddish newspaper.
“That was [taken] at Ekberg’s apartment. She is absolutely gorgeous, the American male fantasy, There’s everything, the face, the arms. Her body was like a Grecian goddess. No, a Swedish goddess.”
Quotes courtesy of Phil Stern: A Life’s Work and Christian Wright’s “Between Takes.” Allure Oct. 2003: 254-259. Print.
All photos courtesy of Phil Stern Archives.