Celebrated photographer passes away aged 83
Best known for his then controversial photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken for Vogue in June 1962, Bert Stern died in his home in Manhattan on the 26th June 2013. Despite the fact that he was almost entirely self-taught in terms of his photographic skills, he was one of those commercial photographers to reshape and revolutionise advertising and fashion imagery in the 50s and 60s. Stern expertly transformed simple commercial photography and manipulated this branch of industry into becoming a more artistically appreciated field, rather than merely to sell a product.
Bert Stern was a New York man through and through, and was born there on the 3rd of October 1929. His father was a children’s portrait photographer, but Stern’s initial steps into the world of photography began with a humble job in the mailroom of Look magazine, where he learnt the ropes from fellow photographer and womaniser Stanley Kubrick and art director Hershel Bramson, who later offered him his first commercial job. His Smirnoff Vodka campaign of 1955 for a Madison Avenue advertising agency was a big success, and he went on to land the position of art director at Mayfair magazine. Here, Stern bought a camera and taught himself the ways of the dark room, creating contact sheets and prints in order to begin his career taking his own pictures.
Prior to his Smirnoff success, in 1951 Stern was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War, but instead of heading out to Korea, he worked as a photographer on an army base in Japan. It was here that he learnt how to shoot film, and spent his days capturing news footage for the Army. He spent the rest of the 50s creating and filming documentaries, but found his way back to shooting stills in the early 60s, capturing the faces of stars such as Brigitte Bardot, Sophie Loren, Twiggy, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor.
1962 was a powerful year for Stern, as it was the year in which Vogue sent him to Rome to photograph Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra, followed by world-renowned photoset “The Last Sitting” featuring Marilyn Monroe just six weeks before her suicide. The shoot took place in the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and stretched over three days. At Monroe’s suggestion, the shoot progressed into stunningly raw nude photographs, where Munroe draped pearls and sheer scarf’s over herself. Stern and Monroe together captured 2,571 shots from the three days, and Stern described them as being “haunting”.
As his career thrived, his personal life suffered towards the end of the 60s, in which his marriage, health and finances suffered with the help of various prescription drugs. His post-Monroe success came from his piece “The Pill Book”, a series of stills simply depicting the various drugs he took as artwork. The book was hugely popular and he returned to the world of commercial photography, continuing to photograph the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Sophie Dahl and Scarlett Johansson. His 80s muse, Shannah Laueister, who became his wife in 2009, directed a documentary which named Stern the original Mad Man in reference to popular television show about advertising in the 60s, Mad Men which was released earlier this year.