Triumph of the Paparazzo

Phil Stern has created some of the greatest celebrity and documentary photographs of all time, but his real love is the sport of getting paid.
Photograph by Nathaniel Welch

By Steve Appleford

The kindly old gentleman with the oxygen tank is waiting on a friend. Phil Stern is on the back patio of his Hollywood home, plugged into the tank, just blocks away from the Paramount lot, peanuts scattered on the table in front of him. It's late afternoon, feeding time for Stern's demanding neighbor, a friendly bluebird named Charlie. Phil knows what it's like to wait for the peanuts to fall.

He has called himself a humble paparazzo, as if he were some kind of handyman with a camera, feeding off the celebrity of the moment. But Phil was no stalker with a telephoto. His metier was always about access, not ambushes and flashbulbs. Along with the usual gigs that kept the kids fed and the rent paid, Stern was a master of the strange, unguarded moment, documenting the movie-making world in pictures both raw and glamorous. He could do the set-up shots, too, with the multiple lights and big cameras and grinning celebrities, but his best work was somewhere closer to the edge, more like Robert Frank than a Hollywood propagandist. Not that Stern always realized it himself at the time. Deep into the files the pictures went, for years and years.

"I've taken mountains and mountains of stuff - which I occasionally describe as mountains and mountains of shit," Stern says, grinning as Charlie hovers nearby. "It so happens, there's a little gem here and a little gem there. You dig out those gems. When a photographer has the advantage of close to a century of work, you end up with lots and lots of stuff. So the law of probability is that, since I've been around a lot longer than most photographers, I have a lot of shit to sift through."

At 84, Stern has outlived many of his most celebrated subjects, and by the 1990s he was really sticking it to the big magazine photo editors in New York. Whenever a major Hollywood star died, a Burt Lancaster or a Dean Martin, Phil would get the call, and he would give them the biggest price he could come up with. Money wasn't really the issue anymore. He spent much of it on his adult children. His purpose was sport. His pictures were intimate, unique, and he knew it. So his business card read: Don't fuck with me.

For years, he had a friendly correspondence with Frank Sinatra, a contest to see who would croak first. They had worked together for decades, Stern and his camera documenting the recording of saloon songs at Capitol Records, taking pictures of Sinatra shoveling pasta into his mouth backstage somewhere, or capturing Frank lighting JFK's cigar at the 1961 inaugural dinner. A big payday was coming, if Phil could just hang on long enough, and he would sometimes send Frank a funny note reminding him of the nice profit his passing would provide.

When the day finally came in 1998, the magazines called as they always did, and CNN rushed over one of its top reporters from Atlanta, a man with a shaved head and a black turtleneck, ready to ask the most obvious questions. What was Sinatra really like? What were Phil's favorite memories of the man? He pored hungrily over a stack of Sinatra pictures. And right there on the counter was a cutout of the singer-actor in a crucifixion pose, another one of Stern's visual gags. A gold mine of Sinatra moments.

Phil had some news for the man from CNN. He would have to pay for the use of every one of those photos. The reporter was momentarily stunned, then pointed out that no less than Herb Ritts had in the past allowed the broadcast of many, many pictures, for no charge at all. Phil just stared at the man, gray head nodding slightly. "I don't have Herb Ritts's publicist."

The stars keep dying, but now Stern lets an agent in New York handle most of the daily negotiations, taking the calls from Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly and People and the rest, demanding big paydays as always, maybe bigger. And the photographer has other pastimes now, at the moment looking over a stack of international magazines celebrating his work, pages and pages of pictures, all of them paid for, of course, and drawn from his massive new book, Phil Stern: A Life's Work (powerHouse).

"I never thought I'd live to see the day that I'd have a book published that's over eight pounds," he says with a chuckle, as he signs a copy with a silver marker. "I get a hernia picking it up, for Christ's sakes."

Anita Ekberg, publicity shoot, 1953.
Photograph by Phil Stern
Courtesy powerHouse Books
Stern has been mostly retired from shooting for at least a decade. A heart attack last year and emphysema have slowed him down and kept him forever connected to his portable oxygen tank. But it hasn't kept him from enjoying a second career ... as an artiste. Or something like that, since Phil Stern rejects use of the words art or artist to describe him or his work. Call him a photographer. Regardless, his best pictures are as close to art as anything by his most esteemed contemporaries. His images often appeared in Life, back when it was a showcase for the likes of the great documentary photographers, W. Eugene Smith and the Magnum crowd.

He first arrived in Los Angeles from New York City in early 1941 as a photographer for Friday, a national leftist weekly, to help open up a West Coast bureau and cover labor, agriculture, and Hollywood. Its motto: "The Weekly Magazine That Dares to Tell the Truth!" It folded the same year, but Stern was quickly recruited as a freelancer for Life and other reputable magazines, spending much of his time on movie sets and backlots. So there he was on the set as Orson Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons back in 1942, a time now so far gone that it seems (and is) incredible that anyone who was there is still lucid enough to talk about it. And over the decades, Stern would take his camera far behind the scenes: John Wayne in checkered hot pants in Acapulco in 1959, John Huston duck hunting in Mexico in 1960, Rita Moreno rehearsing for West Side Story in 1961. At their best, the pictures were vivid, usually black-and-white, and filled with humor or subtle drama, evocative of far more than just their celebrity value.

The photographer himself is less impressed, although he enjoys your compliments and all the attention. Stern was an admirer of graphic arts and the great painters, and inevitably the use of shadow and light he saw in Daumier and Delacroix seeped into his pictures. But the man was looking for a paycheck, he insists, and he knew that more complex images were likely to earn a higher fee by appearing across two full pages (i.e., "double-trucks"). "That economic factor was important," he says. "I also learned to feel out the tastes of different editors. So in a way, you can make an allegory of Heidi Fleiss and I." He laughs. "I mean, all this bullshit, any photographer that goes 'I only do what I feel in my gut. I don't do what any editor says.' To me, I'm very suspicious."

Others see it differently. "So many talented working photographers have a hard time seeing their work as something special," says David Fahey, who first met Stern while co-curating Masters of Starlight, a 1986 group exhibition of Hollywood photographers at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He's represented Stern at L.A.'s Fahey/Klein Gallery ever since. "He can't go an hour without making some kind of self-deprecating joke about himself. But he's certainly aware of how important his pictures are, because enough people have told him how important they are."

In 1942, Stern was recruited by the Army Signal Corps as a soldier-photographer attached to an infantry division, eventually known as Darby's Rangers. This time the pictures he made were on the front line of a world war, bearing witness to invasions, villages ablaze, burned bodies. One of his favorite photographs from that period shows the men of his own unit marching through a town, oblivious to the graveyard beside them. Most of the men in that picture would soon be dead or wounded.

Between combat missions, the Rangers were sent out into the field in order to draw German cannon fire, to see what the enemy artillery could do. Lucky Phil. He was finally seriously injured in North Africa, as enemy fire tore apart his neck, one hand, and both legs. As he recuperated in an Army hospital, he was given a choice: return home or go back out to the front to witness the invasion of Sicily. He went to Sicily. "Twenty-one-and-a-half years old, macho, adventurous, all that shit," he says today. "If I had to do this all over again, believe me, I'd run to Canada. Looking back at it, I don't even believe it happened. To me, it was like a big piece of fiction."

One picture not in his new book happened in the Army hospital. Another soldier there had been shot up, his face torn to shreds and pieced back together by plastic surgeons. The final result fell far short of handsome, with thick scars and a misshapen mouth. Stern got him to attempt his first smile since his injuries. He took the picture, an image that is disturbing and somehow touching all at once.

"You point a camera, and you push the button," he says of his time in the Army. "The only trouble is that your life is at stake, and I came close to being killed quite a few times. But it turns out that everything seems to work in my favor. God apparently is very generous to atheists. He fucks the believers. That's my observation."

How else to explain the windfall today? He has been honored by the mayor and knows city politicians on a first-name basis. At openings of his shows in Los Angeles and New York, he is greeted and feted by the biggest names in photography, and even the new generation of photo editors he has tortured for so long. They act like fans. They are charmed by his winking, streetwise remarks. In 1999, he traveled to Havana for a one-man show organized by the photographer Korda. And people keep buying his prints.

More recently, Michael Jackson rolled up to his house in a limo one day, accompanied by two bodyguards and a young son, Prince. ("I looked at that little blond kid, and he looked like a replica of a little Nordic doll.") Jackson went through his prints, stood teetering on a stool, and left with a pile of prints and a bill for $47,000. He never paid, and eventually all the items were returned but one: A lifesized cutout of a swaggering Marlon Brando, in cuffed jeans and leather jacket, printed up in connection with Stern's first book in 1993.

"I've encountered kooky people, absolutely," Stern says of his career. "Jackson is not quite the pink-cheeked American boy that lives next door." But Jackson still has the Brando, and Stern doesn't have another. He rarely gives up on these things. Too much fun to be had. He'll get it back. Don't fuck with Phil Stern.

Los Angeles CityBeat, March 17, 2004.

1 comment:

ZenGirlie said...

That figures about Jackson not paying. What is it with these celebrities who think it's all free for them? I love how he told off CNN too. He should be paid well for his pictures. They are HIS pictures. His work is stunning and unique. He should get paid royally for them. they aren't like the rest of the schlock out there. His work has soul. Nothing grates on my nerves more than people trying to take advantage of photographers. Phil Stern is a hero to me. Love his book. Love his attitude.