by Eric Newill
These days, there are two kinds of celebrity photos. There’s the Planned One, for which even the most low-rent reality star employs a phalanx of agents, publicists, stylists, personal assistants and hair and makeup people to craft their image. And there’s the Unplanned One, when paparazzi stake out nightclubs, airports, groceries and the offices of plastic surgeons to capture a star at their wind-whipped, makeup-free, puffy worst.
Certainly there have been glamour portraits as long as there have been lenses, but in days gone by, there was also a third type of celeb photo: the intimate, behind-the-scenes snap that somehow tells the viewer more about the subject than many dozens of feet of celluloid. The master of that type of image was Phil Stern, who died last week at age 95.
A former combat cameraman during WWII, Stern was the Hollywood correspondent for such image-driven publications as Life, Look and Photoplay. Readers gobbled up these magazines’ lavish, multipage spreads of stars lounging in their dressing trailers or grabbing a smoke between takes; the celebs knew these features kept them in the public eye, much like a segment on E! News or The Insider today. Stern enjoyed close access to personalities including Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart and wife Lauren Bacall. Over the years, they came to have faith in his eye, and let down their guard.
This sense of trust comes through in Stern’s images, which lend humanity to mid-century icons—from Bogie on a seesaw with his little daughter, Leslie, to Anita Ekberg adjusting her brassiere, from movie crew members stunned by a passing Monroe to Sinatra lighting JFK’s cigarette during his inauguration. He even caught Richard Nixon giving Gina Lollobrigida a flirtatious onceover.
As Stern told Entertainment Weekly (as quoted in the Times obit), “I was never interested in the glamour. I was interested in the tears and agony behind it.” If they ever want to become truly immortal, today’s celebrities and their attendant hucksters should heed those words.