Phil Stern dies at 95; photographer to the stars

Phil Stern, who has died at the age of 95, was an award-winning American photographer noted for his iconic portraits of Hollywood stars, as well as his war photography while serving as a U.S. Army Ranger during World War II.

Phil Stern, a renowned photographer for Life, Look and other magazines who honed his skills as a World War II combat photographer but was best known for capturing Hollywood icons and jazz legends in unguarded moments, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by Geoff Katz, his New York-based licensing representative. Stern, who reportedly suffered from emphysema and congestive heart failure, lived at the Veterans Home of California.

Among Stern’s memorable Hollywood images during the heyday of his six-decade career:

— Marlon Brando, in jeans and black-leather jacket, striding across the outdoor set of “The Wild One." 


— A bewildered-looking Marilyn Monroe with an impassive Jack Benny backstage at a benefit at the Shrine Auditorium.

— A young Sammy Davis Jr. seemingly defying gravity as he dances on a Hollywood Boulevard rooftop, the sky serving as a backdrop.

— A puffy-faced Judy Garland fussing with her hair during the filming of “A Star Is Born.”

— John Wayne conferring with a cigar-chomping John Ford on the set of Wayne’s “The Alamo.”


Stern, who began shooting for Life in 1941, told the magazine in a 1993 interview that despite his access to Hollywood’s elite, he was rarely a confidante of the stars he photographed.

“I was like the plumber who comes to fix your toilet, then you don’t see him again,” he maintained. Besides, he said, “I didn’t care to know them, usually — so many of them were frankly a pain.”

In the end, the blunt, sometimes gruff photographer viewed himself simply as a “hired paparazzo." 

For several decades, Stern also shot album covers for the Verve, Pablo and Reprise record labels; he and his camera were fixtures at recording sessions with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats. In a recent conversation with The Times, Stern said his interest in photography emerged when he was 12 and his mother got him a free camera in a Kodak promotional giveaway.

“They offered any 12-year-old child a free, brand-new Kodak camera,” he recalled. “Those were box cameras. Of course, Eastman Kodak had an agenda here. They gave away free cameras, God knows how many, thousands of them, and the only place you could get film at that time was from Eastman Kodak. The sales of films, of course, skyrocketed after giving away these cameras.”

A full Times obituary will appear shortly.

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