Phil Stern 1919-2014

‘Phil Stern: A Life’s Work’ (2003), photographed by Fraser Penney

Photographer Phil Stern has died aged 95, Variety reports.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1919, and learned his trade as an apprentice for the Police Gazette. He won a Purple Heart for his work as a unit photographer during World War II, and as a freelance photographer for Life and other publications, was a pioneer of photo-journalism. He also worked extensively on film sets, and shot many classic jazz album covers. In 1961, Stern was hired by Frank Sinatra to document President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Phil Stern photographs Marilyn at the ‘My Marilyn’ party, 1952

He first photographed Marilyn in 1952, at a party celebrating the release of Ray Anthony’s ‘My Marilyn’. But his most substantial work with MM was at a children’s charity event at the Shrine Auditorium on December 4, 1953. Her range of expression in these photos – from joyous to melancholy – is extraordinary, anticipating Richard Avedon’s 1957 portraits.

With Jack Benny
With hairdresser Gladys Rasmussen and make-up artist Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder


In 1956, Marilyn returned to Hollywood triumphant after a year-long sabbatical. Once again, Stern captured her pensive side at a press conference. And in 1958, he took a long shot of a visibly pregnant Marilyn on the set of Some Like it Hot. (Sadly, she would later miscarry – making his picture both rare and poignant.)

In recent years, Stern opened a gallery in Los Angeles and published two books, Phil Stern’s Hollywood and A Life’s Work. ‘Stern has been sporadically selling prints of his photographs for years out of his modest Hollywood home,’ NBC reported. ‘But only the most persistent usually succeeded, and one of those was Madonna, who showed up at his doorstep to buy a photo of Marilyn Monroe.’

Director Steven Spielberg poses with Phil Stern’s most famous photo of Marilyn

Active until the end, Stern was living at the Veterans Home of California. In 2012, an exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death opened at the Phil Stern Gallery.

He was modest about his gifts: ‘Look, Matisse I ain’t,’ he told the LA Times in 2003. ‘You know, how they have on the invitations, a reception for the artist will be held at….  And I say, Look, you gotta change this. I’m not an artist! I’m a photographer. A skilled craftsman.’

‘I have these dreams,’ Stern joked. ‘Those anxiety dreams. I’m at heaven’s gate and there is St. Peter, and they’re waiting to let me in. And there’s Davis, Sinatra, Wayne, Brando. They’re looking at me. You son of a bitch!

Celebrating Phil Stern at 95

Marilyn by Phil Stern, 1953

Photographer Phil Stern, who turned 95 this week, has donated prints of 95 of his iconic shots to the Veterans Home of California, where he is currently a resident, reports Media Bistro. A special celebration and unveiling of the donated prints is scheduled for this weekend.

Marilyn is pictured here at a backstage at a children’s benefit at the Shrine Auditorium in 1953. In another, most pensive photo, she poses with Jack Benny. They had filmed a hilarious sketch for his television show at the same venue in September. Although Marilyn’s expression looks tragic, the photograph may have been staged to present two comedic stars in a different mood.

Marilyn with Jack Benny

Phil Stern Opens LA Gallery

Phil Stern, who took this striking photo of Marilyn in 1953, will open a personal gallery in Los Angeles today. Stern has also photographed many other famous names, including Frank Sinatra, and his portrait of a tired couple from Oklahoma, trying to cross the border into California in 1939 in their battered Ford truck – a photo that became synonymous with the Great Depression – headed an exhibition of Life magazine’s best work.

“Stern has been sporadically selling prints of his photographs for years out of his modest Hollywood home. But only the most persistent usually succeeded, and one of those was Madonna, who showed up at his doorstep to buy a photo of Marilyn Monroe.

When told that many admirers of his work think he is a great artist on the camera, he replied,’Matisse I ain’t.'”

NBC Los Angeles

Phil Stern Exhibition, Milan

Phil Stern, 1953

“When you think of photographs of famous people you think of the paparazzi. But when you see Phil Stern’s photographs of Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean you think of art. Not only are his photos moments captured in time, but they are also art – photos of an era long gone. Phil Stern managed to break down the wall of celebrity and show people for who they really were. When you’re talking iconic photographers you can’t really look any further.”

Marc Baker, ‘The Vine’

Forma Gallery