Don’t call Phil Stern an artist. ”A Matisse I ain’t!” says the 73-year-old photographer, who, shooting for Life and other magazines, has spent a half century capturing revealing celebrity moments in bold strokes of black and white. ”I’ve just been in the right place at the right time.” Ah, but in those places — movie sets, studio lots, A-list parties — Stern discovered the kind of intimate images that are lost to today’s chroniclers of Hollywood.
Whether the shot is Jack Lemmon getting a high-heel adjustment in a costume from Some Like It Hot, or Frank Sinatra plotting a practical joke on the director of The Devil at 4 O’Clock, or James Dean yawning broadly on the streets of Hollywood, Stern’s on-the-fly photojournalism provides a rare glimpse into his subjects’ essence. ”I was never interested in the glamour,” says the native New Yorker, who moved to Los Angeles in 1941. ”I was interested in the tears and the agony behind it.”
Stern, whose work will be showcased in a book due in December from Knopf, is happy to be training his camera mostly on his grandchildren now. ”Today it takes too much energy,” he says. ”The stars are in control, dictating who will shoot the pictures. The access I had to Sinatra no one has today.”
Luckily, Stern’s access is ours to enjoy as well. On the following pages, we see Hollywood at its most unguarded — a compellingly candid brand of art.
(Please contact EW for photos.)