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Remembering Phil Stern Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

15 December 2014

His mother managed to get him a free box camera in a Kodak promotional giveaway when he was 12 years old and he quickly became fascinated by the images it made. "My God, I thought, this was magic." Saturday Phil Stern passed away at 95 after a lifetime of making magic as the photographer to the stars.

Photography became a paying job when at 18 he worked days as a photoengraver's apprentice and nights as a photographer for The Police Gazette in New York. He was soon hired by Friday magazine and moved to Los Angeles to photograph movie stars.

World War II intervened when he was in his early twenties, so he enlisted in the Army, becoming a darkroom technician in London before volunteering with Darby's Rangers, a commando unit in North Africa. He documented the unit's battles against German forces there before being wounded at El Guettar, Tunisia.

Shell fragments had severed the nerve to his right arm. He regained limited use of his arm, though, after it was surgically repaired at a field hospital in Morocco.

His arm functional again, he resumed combat photography for Stars and Stripes, volunteering to photograph the American landing in Sicily.

He was awarded the Purple Heart but he didn't talk much about his combat experience. "A lot of it, my war experience, I don't particularly care to dwell on, because some of it was pretty ugly."

He returned to Los Angeles after the war and married Rosemae, with whom he had four children Tom, Peter, Lata and Phil. Tom and Peter survive him, along with eight grandchildren.

He jump started his career in Los Angeles covering the homecoming of Darby's Rangers for Life magazine. That led to assignments for Life, Look, Collier's, Vanity Fair and other magazines. He also shot shot album covers for the Verve, Pablo and Reprise record labels and covered "the jazz scene," as he put it.

While he was often employed on films to do the publicity stills, his most memorable work was his candids of the stars and their families. His images of the Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, among many others reveal the person behind the personality.

He was modest about his success. "All you had to have was an expensive camera," he said in an interview earlier this year. "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."

In 1961, Frank Sinatra, who was in charge of the entertainment, named him official photographer of John F. Kennedy's inauguration. He described how he got the job:

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."

In 2001, he donated his library of Hollywood photographs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His autobiography, Phil Stern: A Life's Work was published in 2003. More of his images can be seen at his online archives and Fahey/Klein Gallery.

On the occasion of his 95th birthday, he announced plans to donate 95 of his most famous photos to the Veterans Home of California, where he lived. "Most of the walls here are bare and my images may be an improvement," he said. Confined to a wheelchair, he still wore a camera around his neck.

Not a Speed Graphic any more but a small digital camera. "I call it shooting from the hip," he told Variety.

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