Portraits by an icon

Portraits by an icon

Famed photographer Phil Stern preserves his historic legacy at a new gallery

By Lionel Rolfe 03/03/2011

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The Phil Stern Gallery in downtown Los Angeles opened its doors to the general public recently. It’s a small space at 601 S. Los Angeles St., next door to Cole’s, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in downtown.
 
The gallery features a collection of photographs of John Kennedy’s inauguration, some of which originally appeared in Life Magazine and appeared in Vanity Fair last month.
 
The premiere party for the gallery was in late January in a great cavernous room of brick, iron and wood high in the Pacific Electric building where the lighting was perfect, the crab and salmon hors d’oeuvres were delicious and the house was packed with mostly beautiful people. Appropriately, it was the 50th anniversary of the inaugural in 1961 — the launching of Camelot.
Many of the photos from the premiere will be on the wall of the gallery that just opened, including not only a lot of John Kennedy and the Kennedy clan, but almost all the great musicians and Hollywood stars who attended the gala celebration thrown by JFK and Frank Sinatra as a way of setting the scene for Camelot.
 
The pictures are incredible, not only because Stern is a great photographer, but because Frank Sinatra took Stern under 
his wing and got him the inside track.  Sinatra dubbed Stern his personal photographer, which got him the ringside seat for the Kennedy administration.
 
Stern has been selling his prints of his photographs for years for thousands of dollars each from his modest home in Hollywood. For example, when Madonna wanted to buy a Phil Stern photograph of Marilyn Monroe, she had to visit his then unkempt, tired green-walled box-cluttered abode, built in the same alleyway where the Keystone cops used to follow each other like lemmings.
 
But the truth is only a few of the most dedicated collectors found their way to his home. Most of his business came from New York magazines and book editors and publishers who had long had his number. Most individual collectors purchased prints from the Fahey-Klein Gallery, which will keep selling his work.
 
He doesn’t think they’ll be a conflict between his new gallery and Fahey-Klein. Stern’s gallery will draw from his newly archived collections on the many subjects he has documented. These exhibits will change from time to time, and more, there will be corollary exhibits by other younger photographers whose causes he wants to champion.
 
Stern has finally gotten to this point in life after spending decades trying to organize his files. Over the years, a number of people had tried to archive his life’s work. Clearly he found some comfort in being surrounded by his photographs unknown by anyone but him. He could pull a picture out of a box and talk in great and humorous detail about its story. Long before he became known for his celebrity photos in Life Magazine, he had documented the Great Depression and the Great War of the ’30s and ’40s.
 
Donna Lethal, a young archivist and author of the forthcoming book “Milk of Amnesia,” seems to have made progress where nobody else had. She has finally gotten a handle on the giant collection, working with Marc Baker, the gallery’s curator.
 
Arriving by van, Stern’s son Peter greeted him at the door. Then Peter Stern, Lethal and Baker hovered as Phil Stern walked in with a cane and sat down next to his oxygen tank. He took a few moments to get adjusted, then said nothing for a few moments and seemed to just look around to get his bearings. After a few more long moments of silence, he dispelled the notion that he didn’t have everything under control. He began by announcing that “everything is wearing on me, including this interview.”
 
Stern is asked, why a Phil Stern gallery now?
 
Stern thought for a moment, then said the decision to open the gallery was the result of long conversations between he and Peter.
“This is about my legacy,” he said.
 
“But you have always said you weren’t an artist. A lot of people now think you are a great artist on the camera.”
 
“Matisse I ain’t,” he said. Stern doesn’t believe any photographers, including himself, can ever really be called an artist, “like, say, Rembrandt,” he added.
 
“In my mind, a photographer is like a carpenter. He can make a beautiful cabinet and you can exclaim, ‘It’s a work of art,’ but it’s never going to be a Rembrandt,” Stern said.
 
He then asked his son to get Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily on his iPad. He waited impatiently while the online newspaper loaded. He took a look and snorted with enthusiasm. “My prurient interest is in selling content,” he joked, mostly serious.
 
He said his best known work is black and white, but he has a lot of color shots that could be exhibited as well. A good title for that exhibit might be “Adios, Kodachrome,” he said, noting that while the new online newspaper was being launched, Kodak had just announced that it would no longer be manufacturing its iconic film brand. Truly, it was the triumph of the digital over paper and film mediums.
 
Stern has an almost purposely blue-collar way of approaching his world view and perhaps his art, even if he won’t call it such. He broke into photography as a teenager, taking pictures for the old Brooklyn Eagle. 
 
Yet when Life Magazine did an exhibit of the best of its photographs, the lead photo was not a Margaret Bourke-White or an Alfred Eisenstaedt. It was a Phil Stern picture of a tired couple from Oklahoma, trying to cross the border into California in 1939 in their old Ford truck. It was certainly one of the great photographs to come out of the Great Depression. It was 1939 when Stern took the picture for the now long-defunct Friday Magazine. Defeat was written all over their incredible faces. They were well past the point of despair, facing a highly uncertain future. But you knew they would go on, and perhaps even persevere — or perhaps not.
 
This was vintage Phil Stern, the social realist. There was Stern, the lad from Brooklyn, who grew up reading the Yiddish Forward,
whose political and spiritual essence was molded by the New Deal and the Great Depression.
 
As befits his time, Stern was a political lefty. He had a longtime feisty relationship with John Wayne, the dynamics of which were based on their political differences. Wayne called Stern a Bolshevik and Stern called Wayne a Neanderthal. 
 
Stern loved pulling pranks, one of his favorites being the time he was in the old Soviet Union and hunting down a stamp with the biggest, gaudiest picture he could find of Vladimir Lenin, then sticking it on a postcard to his Hollywood pal Wayne.
 
An exchange of name calling followed. Wayne was good enough friends with Stern he allowed Stern to take photographs of him in tight underwear. The clear suggestion showed Wayne exhibiting a high degree of sexual ambivalence for an actor who specialized in playing macho men, and that was the joke of the pictures.
 
The fact is there is a unique Stern vision that you can say is artistic or just craftsman-like. Either way, it’s a very real vision imbued with hard times and war.
 
During World War II, Stern became the official photographer of the Darby’s Rangers. Of the original 1,500 rangers, only 199, one of them Stern, survived. It was Stern who took most of the great combat photos of the North African campaigns of the war. His photos first appeared in Stars and Stripes. While other photographers waited around headquarters for an assignment to take a picture of a bigwig at an Army event, Stern was on the battlefield, so much so that he won a Purple Heart and almost died from his wounds. There was even a feature movie made of Darby’s Rangers in which Stern played himself. In fact, it was this role that provided his entree into Hollywood.
 
It’s been said that Stern made idols out of the ordinary grunt on the battlefield and caught the human side, even the working stiff side, of the greatest actors. He arrived in Los Angeles shortly after the war and after a while, became Life Magazine’s man in Hollywood.
 
The single photo that probably made him the most money was one of James Dean, but another he took of Marilyn Monroe especially told why people paid so much money for his photos. He caught Monroe looking vulnerable and somewhat sad — in no way was it a glamour shot. Rather, it offered a glimpse into her soul.
 
Stern also became famous for his photos of Dean, Monroe, Wayne, Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando, among others.
It’s a long way from those two haunted Okie faces to being an official photographer of the 1961 John F. Kennedy inauguration. But it was no accident that along the way Stern also photographed almost every great jazz musician, because he took all the covers of Pablo Records, a record label owned by jazz impresario Norman Granz. Granz insisted that Stern do all his covers, and because nearly every great jazz musician appeared on Granz’s label, Stern took their pictures.
 
In Stern’s universe, you see the people behind the celebrity masks. And he was relentless in getting the shot. It was this quality that molded Stern’s photographs and the man himself.
 
Once, on the New York street of the Paramount lot, Stern pulled up on his motorbike to shoot a stunt scene. A movie camera had been rigged to work automatically in a trench over which a stunt driver piloted a pickup that was supposed to be several feet off the ground.
 
So Stern got off his motorbike, picked up his camera and placed himself squarely in the foxhole with the automated movie camera.
“That was kind of crazy,” someone said to him.
 
“How else am I going to get the shot,” he said.
 
Every time Stern took a picture, he was on the battlefield. Death was an intimate companion to him, which perhaps is why his pictures are also so full of life. Stern was fearless when stalking his photographic prey.
 
He was well into his 70s when he took that shot on the Paramount lot, and now he’s in his 90s, only he doesn’t putt around the busy streets of Hollywood on a motorbike any longer. What with age and his need for oxygen, he’s far less mobile than he once was.
 
­
His character was, in essence, simple. He was a Brooklyn-born Jewish kid who went to fight the Nazi beast, and for him the war never stopped.
 
Being relentlessly Jewish was a part of who he was. Stern is in no way religious, but it was not accidental that one of the pranks he is proudest of is how he took photographs of famous decidedly very non-Jewish celebrities like Brando, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Tracy, Wayne and Sinatra reading the Forward, the old Yiddish paper Stern grew up reading.
 
The first star he asked to hold up the newspaper as if he were reading it was Brando, who of course didn’t know a word of Yiddish but was tickled by the idea. James Cagney, who had the map of Ireland written on his face, was another of his models, but the truth was Cagney loved and spoke Yiddish.
 
For Stern, it was all “theater of the absurd. Theater of the absurd has to be invented by Jews because Jews have the most grist and subject matter, the most pertinent human trauma to supply material for it, because of the nature of their historical predicament.”
 
Over the years, he has become increasingly grumpy. But people around him don’t seem to mind — even when they are his neighbors who help him daily in getting on, they know he is both their grumpy neighbor and a national treasure.

The Phil Stern Gallery is at 610 S. Main St. Los Angeles. See the complete archive at www.philsternarchives.com

Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyessey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin,” which are available through his website, www.boryanabooks.com, or at the Kindlestore. Some of his books, primarily “Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles,” which he co-authored, and “Literary L.A.” features photos by Stern.

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