“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. Follow Barbara on Instagram and Twitter.
Phil Stern’s career in photography began early on. As a high school student growing up in New York, Stern swept floors in a Canal Street photo studio while working nights taking pictures for the notoriously noir Police Gazette.
Stern enlisted in the Army in 1942 and joined the ranks of the elite Darby’s Rangers as a combat photographer. He was well known among his war colleagues for putting himself front and center as he documented battles in North Africa and Sicily, Italy. The credit stamp “Photo by PHIL STERN,” which ran alongside his images in the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes, became synonymous with a truly genuine image taken under fire by a daring young photographer.
Wounded in action at the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia, Phil Stern was awarded a Purple Heart. After returning home to Los Angeles, he was assigned to cover the homecoming of the Darby’s Rangers for Life magazine, which helped usher in his second career, as a Hollywood documentary photographer. Stern began working for Look, Life and Collier’s to chronicle what would become a shared American history.
Stern’s straightforward approach and charming demeanor earned him all-access to President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala, studio mogul Sam Goldwyn’s inner sanctum, on-set lunches with Frank Sinatra, and holidays in Acapulco with John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Stern photographed on over 100 movie sets, including the legendary films “Citizen Kane,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Wild Ones,” “Guys and Dolls” and “West Side Story.” Stern also became a fixture at studio sessions with Jazz superstars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and Dizzy Gillespie, and shot more than 60 album covers.
Q: How did you get your start in photography?
A: I started photography when I was 12 years old. The reason I started is my mother found an advertisement in a New York newspaper by Eastman Kodak. They offered any 12-year-old child a free, brand-new Kodak camera. Those were box cameras. Of course, Eastman Kodak had an agenda here. They gave away free cameras, God knows how many, thousands of them, and the only place you could get film at that time was from Eastman Kodak. The sales of films, of course, skyrocketed after giving away these cameras.
I got one of those cameras, and I was fascinated with the images that it made. My God, I thought, this was magic. At that time I also devoured magazines. That was the period when the picture magazine field was born, devised, or whatever. Look magazine came about. Life magazine came about. I was fascinated with the imagery in those things. It wasn’t difficult to come to the point where I wanted to make pictures like these that I saw in magazines.
I also, at the same time, had notions of becoming an artist. I would make paintings and stun the world with imagery. That came to naught. I had the imagination, but I did not have the ability to transform that onto a surface, a canvas or watercolor paper.
Phil Stern with Joan Crawford
Q: How did you go from being a kid who loved photography magazines to actually working for those same magazines?
A: At a point in time, I traversed that distance from being enamored with the camera and the publications to the point where I did it myself. I got a job when I was 15 or 16. I was in high school, and I went to school in the mornings. In the afternoons I would work as an assistant clean-up person in a photo lab in New York City. In photography, you have to keep dust and dirt away from your film negatives. I cleaned the walls and surfaces of the photo darkroom. I also mixed chemicals. It worked out pretty well.
I also ferreted about looking for work after school beyond the photo lab. Before I worked seriously for high-level magazines, I actually got assignments from publications like Police Gazette, with pictures of criminals, prostitutes and different events that would suit the taste of the editor who had a readership that required a certain kind of pictures.
In the early ’40s, I worked on assignments for Life magazine – miscellaneous things, personalities, events, etc. – as well as for Look magazine and Collier’s, etc. Then, sadly, the war began.
Q: How did you become a war photographer?
A: The United States had the draft back then. If you didn’t enlist and you were young and healthy, you’d be drafted. There was no escape from that, unless you were very sick or debilitated physically. I went from Hollywood into the Army, to the training station in Long Island, N.Y., and from there on troop ships to England, and from England, after training, to the invasion of North Africa, Tunisia.
American troops enter Comiso, Sicily, July, 1943
I was put on the staff of Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, after I was wounded. My right arm was incapacitated because the nerve that operates the right arm, in my upper neck, was hit by shell fragments. It severed the nerve that operates my right arm and also my right hand at the wrist. Shrapnel had also lacerated the tendons that work each of the fingers. The army field hospital in North Africa – in Morocco – had a huge medical facility for wounded soldiers. They fixed me up there. They did nerve surgery and fixed the right arm. It worked fine but limited. They also retied the tendons that worked my hand. As a result, my right hand, after a lot of therapy, actually became more dexterous than the left hand. After I was wounded, I was awarded the Purple Heart medal, which was common among troops who got wounded. The Army was trying to decide what to do with me beyond that.
I was known in the Army, it was on record, that I was a photographer. They said to me, “We would like you to stay in the Army. You can stay and do limited duty.” Limited duty turned out to be Stars and Stripes. Commanders said there was an invasion coming up with Sicily and they would give me access to anything I wanted. I didn’t have to go – I chose to do it. I thought it would be very exciting. A lot of it, my war experience, I don’t particularly care to dwell on, because some of it was pretty ugly.
Darbys Rangers plot their mission for the invasion of North Africa, 1942
Q: Do you think your war experience impressed the Hollywood stars and helped you get access?
A: I’m sure that it impressed some of the Hollywood stars. It 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. That’s about it. Many of the Hollywood stars felt comfortable with me hovering around. I took advantage of that wherever I had the opportunity to photograph them. I don’t know what made them felt comfortable with me, but they were, and I took advantage of that.
Q: How did you meet James Dean?
A: In 1955, I was driving early in the morning on Sunset Boulevard, going to Life’s editorial office, which was on the Sunset Strip. And in order to get there, I had to pass Laurel Canyon. At Laurel Canyon, there was a red light for the cross traffic. And a crazy bastard on a motorcycle came whizzing right through the red light on the road. And I came within a few inches of smashing him. Looking back at it, I almost killed him. But I skidded on the brakes. He did too, and it worked out. I immediately recognized him. I called him every expletive I could think of. However, it all ended up with us going to the opposite side of the street, where they had that famous Schwab’s drug store. We had coffee together. However, it occurred to me that it would have been a good career move if I had killed him because I’d be famous all over the world for having killed James Dean.
My photograph of James Dean with his sweater covering his face, except for his eyes, has had a lot of traffic, editorially. It has been used for magazine covers, book covers, advertisements. It’s helped make me semi-rich. I had nothing to do with the making of that image. I did not make it. He made it. That was his whimsical statement of his own volition, and I’m thankful for it. I did not have enough imagination to think of him doing that, but he did. I just pushed the button. He was a self-destructive character, I believe. He did crazy things that could kill him, and one did. That was completely wild, what he did. What killed him was racing on a curved road where he couldn’t see. He just kept going and not knowing that another car was coming toward him.
Phil Stern on James Dean’s Triumph motorcycle.
Q: What was it like to photograph Marilyn Monroe?
A: Photographing Marilyn Monroe was a catch as catch can for me. I was like a paparazzi. At no time did I have her on my terms. So I had to be especially careful and attentive, because one of the problems I had – which perhaps all photographers have – was to make photographs that were different than others. It’s a competitive thing because that was in my trade, my way of making a living and so on. It turned out that I did have a point of view that showed up in many of the pictures I made.
Q: What was Frank Sinatra like?
A: Frank Sinatra was the classic saint and sinner. He could be charming, generous, effusive. He could be a nasty, nasty man as well. He was comfortable with me around, and I took advantage of that. When you say I was a friend of his for 50 years, that’s true, but it wasn’t 24/7 friendship. I didn’t see him for years at one point. Every time I would see him again, I was still on his acceptable list.
Q: How did you come to photograph President Kennedy’s inauguration?
A: President Kennedy had a big supporter in Frank Sinatra. He was avid about raising funds, performing at events to raise money for the campaign and so on. So when Kennedy was elected, he appointed Sinatra to be the director of entertainment for the inaugural. Sinatra lined up some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Bette Davis, Sir Laurence Olivier, etc., etc. Knowing this, I took advantage. I was very opportunist in this matter. And it so happened I was working on a film Sinatra was making called “Devil at 4 o’ Clock” when the news broke internationally that John F. Kennedy was elected. On the set of this film at Columbia Studios, I got a little memo card, those three-by-five memo cards. And on it I wrote, “Dear Frank, congratulations. I hereby apply to be resident photographer of the event.” Gloria Lovell was his secretary and she did all the personal work that he needed to be done. She called me that evening and gave me the date of a chartered flight where he and all his friends, Bette Davis and all these other people, were flying. And she says, “You’re on,” at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Q: Politically you were very different from John Wayne, so how did it come to pass that you two developed such a close friendship?
A: John Wayne was something else. He felt comfortable with me. He knew about my war record, because there was a lot of publicity about “Phil Stern, the War Hero,” and all that…. He asked for me on some of his films. There were times when I got rather intimate with him, and we got into political arguments. Several times, when we were both a little drunk, I would call him a “Neanderthal fascist.” He would call me a “bomb-throwing Bolshevik.” We both lived with it. We were, indeed, the odd couple. He had a black man cook for him. This man, all he knew how to do was cook steaks and chops. That’s all that John Wayne liked to eat, steak and chops, and he loved the way this guy cooked them.
I’m told my photograph of Wayne wearing shorts is a favorite in the gay community. They love it. You must understand that in the 1940s and 1950s wearing … what do you call those blue canvas sneakers? Espadrilles? Those espadrilles, and the leather purse, and the uncovered legs was the mode of the period. It had nothing to do with being gay. Anyway, at that time a lot of prints of that Wayne image were sold.
Q: Sophia Loren? Marlon Brando?
A: I don’t remember too much about Sophia Loren, except in Africa one time, we were in Libya on a film location. At one point, a scene required her taking a bath or a shower. She cried like a little girl who’d been spanked because the director wanted her to shave her armpits. European women did not shave their armpits. She did it, but she cried for about two days. [laughs] That’s all I remember about her.
Marlon Brando was a strange character for me. At the Academy Awards, where he got the Academy Award for “On the Waterfront,” they cordoned off an area at the theater where the awards were given for a photo shoot, to get Brando after he got the award. I was part of that, among many other photographers taking pictures of him. However, we had to wait for him to get to our area, where we’d photograph him. He came and he apologized. He said, “I’m sorry,” and he said to me, “They had a security line and they wouldn’t let people through. When I came, the security guard didn’t recognize me and I started to tell him, ‘I’m Marlon Brando, I’m Brando’…I couldn’t figure out how to say the lines without sounding imperious, or anything.” That I found to be amusing.
Q: What makes a good picture?
A: I wish I knew. I could keep taking more. I don’t really know, except to say what is the obvious. The photograph should say something. It should be readable at one glance. If you have to study a photograph, I don’t think it’s worth it. As I said earlier, the point of view is important. My point of view is that.
I wince a little at the term “artist” when it’s used to reference me. I do not see myself or equate photography with Rembrandt, Delacroix, Matisse, or any of those. I equate it differently. To me, a photograph is not made by an artist, but by an artisan. I don’t see myself as an artist, more as an artisan. In the same vein as when somebody sees a cabinet made of cherry wood, and will refer to it as, “Boy, that’s a great cabinet. It’s a work of art.” I don’t think it’s meant in the same sense as “The Last Supper.”
Photographer Phil Stern sits next to a full-size photograph he made of Louis Armstrong at his studio in Los Angeles. Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times
Q: What has photography taught you?
A: My answer to that is it’s not really what photography taught me, it’s what the great artists taught me. If you really were able to put together at a table a group of photographers and a group of great painters, and have them discuss this subject, I would say that the great painters, the Delacroixs, the Rembrandts, etc., taught us very much, about composition, about light, about the transposition of images. We photographers have learned an awful lot.
On the other hand, what could the great painters, the great artists, learn from us? I’ve searched and thought about this for a long time. The only thing I could come up with is what we could actually teach a great artist is how to make a reasonable color slide of their latest painting. We could do that pretty well, but I can’t think of anything else that we could teach them.
Making photographs, for me, has been a very fortunate phase of my life. I can’t make any complaints about it. All the things that I’ve done, the subject matter that I have been involved with, have been subjects that I personally like. The jazz scene, the Hollywood, the war, and those are mandatory to my needs as a photographer. I am very delighted with the life I’ve had.
Would I do anything differently if I had the opportunity? I would say yes on some things, but mostly no. I’ve done mostly what I’ve wanted to do. There are people I would like to have photographed, but never did, people like Charles Chaplin. I never met him, never photographed him. He’s one of the greatest entertainers that I admire. I’ve been around a long time, and going over material that I’ve done, I’ve concluded that I’ve taken an awful lot of [bad] pictures…. A little gem appears here, a little gem appears there, and I grasp at those little gems. I’m delighted to have them.