Documentary

Phil Stern: 1919 – 2014

James Dean, 1955 © Phil Stern, courtesy CPI Syndication

We remember the unique mentality of war veteran Phil Stern, who captured the defining moments of cinema’s biggest stars

Phil Stern, the decorated veteran of the second world war who went on to capture the defining moments of cinema’s biggest stars, has died.

Stern, known as “Snapdragon” by his friends in the industry, passed away at the age of 95 in Los Angeles after a battle with emphysema and congestive heart failure.

Stern was given a camera at the age of 12, and spent his teens working as a cleaner in a photography lab in New York before getting a job as a local police photographer. His aptitude and mentality for photography was quickly apparent, but his life could have been very different.

Once America entered the Second World War, Stern got the draft. At the age of 21, he was dispatched to the battlefields of North Africa, via training in the south of England. During the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia during the spring of 1943, he was fragged by shell fragments. His right arm was incapacitated because the nerves in his neck were severed. Shrapnel had also lacerated the tendons  in his wrist, causing lifelong damage to his fingers.

Recovering at the field hospital, Stern was awarded the Purple Heart for his service at El Guettar, but he didn’t return to America. Instead, he remained at the frontline to photograph the liberation of Northern Africa and on, through Sicily and into Italy.

Publishing in the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes, Stern often took photographs under fire as he captured American troops fighting Erwin Rommel’s famed ‘ghost division’ tank units, followed by the army’s sweep through Italy. He showed ground troops storming unseen enemies as shells reign down, but his photoessay is also punctuated by moments safe from the frontline; garrison antics and camaraderie with soldiers, the liberation of rural Italian towns, the locals pressing on with their daily lives.

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‘There were a lot of very ugly things during the war – and a lot of very beautiful things,” Stern told Life magazine earlier this year. “I photographed everything.”

After returning home to Los Angeles, Stern was assigned to cover the homecoming of the Darby’s Rangers, with whom he had served, for Life magazine.

He became a regular for the magazine, and quickly gained a reputation for his refusal to genuflect to the stars he photographed, nor to participate in the myth-making that surrounded them. “I was like the plumber who comes to fix your lavatory, then you don’t see him again,” is how he described his relationship with some of the biggest names in the business. “A “humble paparazzo,” is how he described himself, as self-depreciating about the nature of photography as his abilities.

Stern treated the stars he photographed – from James Dean to Marilyn Monroe to Frank Sinatra to JFK – like human beings. Maybe they craved that sense of normalcy, honesty, camaraderie without strings attached, and maybe he provided it for them. For whatever reason, they let Stern close. And so he captured the most secretive of public figures with an intimacy no other photographer managed; Dean’s eyes peering from within a turtleneck jumper, Sophia Loren lying around in bed, Bette Davis cracking up from a joke, John Wayne chilling out on holiday. He was never enamoured with any of them, and – indeed – was more than happy to denigrate them in public. “They could be a real pain,” he has said.

“Access and a level of comfort with your subjects,” is how he described his success when talking to Life magazine. “They need to feel at ease. I think [celebrities] felt comfortable with me. They allowed me to photograph them undisturbed. It was just pure luck.”

Stern’s father was a travelling salesman, working off the back of the Great Depression. On the strength of his photography, Stern was able to put his four kids through college. On news of his death, his sons Peter and Tom donated 95 prints from their father’s work to the West Los Angeles’ VA Hospital, where he spent his last days.