COLUMN 104, APRIL 1, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)
STERN: A LIFE'S WORK
by Phil Stern
Powerhouse Books, 68 Charlton St., NY 10014-46001
256 Pages, $75
Perusing my friend Phil Stern's hefty new book, Phil
Stern: A Life's Work (Powerhouse Books), was a complex task, emotionally and
physically. The book weighed eight pounds -- eight pounds of magnificent photos.
I already knew Phil was a famous photographer---really the last of the great Life Magazine photographers. When I met Phil in the late "70s, I felt as if I had stumbled onto a national treasure.
But at that point, Phil was struggling a bit. Nigey Lennon, who was my wife then, decided to write an article about him in the Sunday magazine of the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. The article was headlined, "For Photographer Phil Stern, The War Has Never Ended."
I think her article helped turn his career around. And he must have thought this too, forever after that he was generous in allowing Nigey and me to use his photos for our books. He even took some nice photos of the two of us on a couple of different occasions, and once he drove way out into the high desert with us to take photos for Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles. He did so, I think, because he was sympathetic to the old Utopian socialist from the beginning of the last century that the book was about---especially a fellow named Job Harriman, the subject of the book.
Believe me, Phil Stern book photos don't normally come free or cheap---especially if you're publishing Marlon Brando's autobiography, and Brando insists that Phil's pictures are the ones to use. Yet Phil just gave Nigey a great picture of Frank Zappa to use for the cover of her memoir, Being Frank: My Time With Frank Zappa.
I think Phil Stern: A Life's Work mostly does Phil justice. But they missed his greatest picture. For me, the most telling Phil Stern moment was when I saw a certain photo of his from the very beginning of his career. I forgot now if it was a book or a big display of great Life Magazine photographers at the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or some such. Phil can't remember either. But I know that there among the Alfred Eisenstadts and Margaret Bourke-Whites was the lead photo, by my not so humble friend Phil Stern.
The photo was of a couple of Okies right out of Steinbeck, a farming couple in their old truck coming across the California border. It was 1939. Phil took the picture for the now long-defunct
Left-winger Phil had a feisty relationship with right-winger John Wayne
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 Phil, the lad from Brooklyn, who grew up reading the Yiddish Forward,
whose political and spiritual essence was molded by the New Deal and the
This is Phil Stern, a political lefty even to this day, who had a longtime feisty relationship with John Wayne. Wayne called Phil a Bolshevik and Phil called him a Neanderthal. Phil's favorite prank was the time in the old Soviet Union when he hunted up the stamp with the biggest, gaudiest picture he could find of Valdimir Lenin,stuck it on a postcard and sent it to John Wayne who lived then in Orange County.
The greatness of the picture was how those faces told the hard times that a whole generation faced. That's what made his wartime photos great too. The way they told a much larger story.
Phil was the official photographer of the Darby's Rangers. It was Stern who took most of the combat photos of the North African campaigns of World War II. 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, Phil was on the battlefield. So much so he won a Purple Heart and almost lost his life from his war wounds.
Somewhere in Phil's new book, someone says that Phil made idols out of the ordinary grunt on the battlefield and caught the human side, even the working stiff side, of the greatest of Hollywood's greats.
It was after World War II that Phil started photographing Hollywood stars.
I guess it's a long way from those two haunted Okie faces to being the official photographer of the 1961 John F. Kennedy inauguration. Frank Sinatra had wanted Phil there. Stern also became famous for his photos of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, and Marlon Brando, among a million others you can see in Phil Stern: A Life's Work.
So of course I'm humbled that Phil took the cover photo of my book Fat Man On The Left: Four Decades In The Underground. It shows me climbing the stairs to the old city room of the Herald-Examiner. At the top of the stairs he has made appear most magically the slogan, "You Are Getting Closer To God."
The joke was that God certainly had never taken a step into the old Herald-Examiner city room.
Phil also took a whole series of photos of folks like John Wayne and Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy reading The Forward in Yiddish. I gratefully used them in The B?nai Brith Messenger, the old Jewish newspaper I edited for ten years.
My second most memorable Phil event occurred when the two of us worked on a series that was going to be called Streets of Hollywood. It was going to appear in the Herald's Sunday magazine, and then get syndicated. But Phil insisted on editorial control, and the new young editor just didn't understand how to handle Phil. Too bad, it would have been a big success.
The formula was a simple one. It had to be a movie that was being shot on the streets of Hollywood---the definition of Hollywood was a little elastic, because we did one of a movie shot in downtown Los Angeles. I don't remember the names of the human stars, but the film had a couple of most wonderful orangutans in it. I became quite enthralled with the orangutans.
The second Streets of Hollywood was shot on the "New York Street? at Paramount Studios, which actually is in Hollywood. I had already gotten on the lot. Phil came tooling up on his old Italian motorbike---he lived practically across the street from Paramount. It was a stunt scene. A movie camera had been rigged up to work automatically in a trench over which a stunt driver piloted a pickup truck that was supposed to be several feet off the ground.
Phil got off his motorbike. Picked up his camera. And put himself in the trench with the movie camera.
'that was kind of crazy," I said to him afterward.
"How else am I going to get the shot?? he said.
I realized then that that every time Phil took a picture, he was on the battlefield. Death was that intimate a companion to him, which perhaps is why his pictures are also so full of life.
[Lionel Rolfe is the author of Literary L.A., Fat Man on the Left and the forthcoming, My Yaltah:The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and
Willa Cather.] ##
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