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Remembering Bert Stern Tweet This   Forward This

1 July 2013

I like," Bert Stern once explained, "to put feelings into my photographs." The noted commercial photographer passed away last week at the age of 83 in Manhattan.

Bert Stern. From the film 'Bert Stern: Original Madman.' Photo by Bruce Davisons, © 1958 by 'Jazz on a Summer Day.'

He certainly put some feeling into his 1955 shot for Smirnoff vodka, a close-up of a martini in the red sands of the Egyptian desert, the Great Pyramid at Giza in the distance (seen here). It was simple, direct and compelling.

"It was truly a breakthrough image," observed Bruce Barnes, director of the George Eastman House photography museum in Rochester, N.Y. "Until that time, most ads were illustrative of products or their benefits. Stern was moving into much more evocative, metaphysical imagery. It was a quantum leap over what had been done before."

Born in Brooklyn on Oct. 3, 1929 to a father who photographed children's portraits, he dropped out of high school and joined the Army, working as a photographer in Japan. That led to a job in the mailroom at Look magazine where he befriended staff photographer Stanley Kubrick and caught the attention of the art director, Hershel Bramson, who assigned him to that Smirnoff campaign.

Stern co-directed Jazz On A Summer's Day in 1959. The music documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival was inducted into the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999. He was himself the subject of Bert Stern: Original Madman directed by his wife, Shannah Laumesiter.

In June 1962, Stern photographed the actress Marilyn Monroe in what became her last sitting. "It was a one-time-in-a-lifetime experience to have Marilyn Monroe in a hotel room," he quipped. He made the most of it, taking 2,500 frames of Monroe six weeks before her death.

He photographed a number of other stars, including Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Truman Capote, Twiggy and Elizabeth Taylor. But his favorite subjects were professional models. "What makes a great model is her need, her desire," he said, "and it's exciting to photograph desire."

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