Whether he was capturing scenes of weary troops praying by candlelight or of Hollywood stars being themselves, Phil Stern had a problem seeing himself and his fellow photographers as “artists.”
“Matisse, I ain’t,” he liked to say. And although he never lost the feeling that photography was a kind of magic, he downplayed any shooter’s pretentions to genius: The only thing photographers could teach great artists, he told The Times this year “is how to make a reasonable color slide of their latest painting. We could do that pretty well, but I can’t think of anything else we could teach them.”
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 a Los Angeles hospital. He was 95.
A resident of the Veterans Home of West Los Angeles, Stern had been hospitalized for several weeks, said his friend David Fahey, a co-owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery that had displayed Stern’s work for decades.
Stern, a longtime smoker, had emphysema.
Unlike the movie-studio portrait photographers whose work enhanced the illusion of flawless screen gods and goddesses, Stern typically photographed 1940s and ‘50s Hollywood stars candidly on the set, at home and at private gatherings.
“He made them seem real,” Robert Cushman, photography curator for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences told the Times in 2003. “They weren’t these beautifully idealized, carefully retouched and airbrushed images anymore.”
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 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.”
Stern and Wayne struck up a friendship despite their wildly divergent political views.
“Several times, when we were both a little drunk, I would call him a ‘Neanderthal fascist.’ He would call me a ‘bomb-throwing Bolshevik.’ We both lived with it,” Stern recalled. “We were, indeed, the odd couple.”
Stern got to know James Dean in 1955, when the star whipped through a red light on his motorcycle and nearly crashed into him. “I called him nearly every expletive I could think of,” Stern said. The two ended up having coffee together at Schwab’s drugstore across the street from the site of the near collision.
For several decades, Stern also shot album covers and was a familiar presence at recording sessions with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats.
Stern’s pioneering, behind-the-scenes approach “contributed to an entire era’s sense of what was cool and undeniably authentic,” Fahey said. “He knew how to make that kind of photograph.”
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Stern was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 3, 1919. His family moved to New York City while he was still an infant.
“My dad was a salesman, a la Willy Loman,’' he once said. “I wanted to find the best way to avoid becoming my father.”
Fascinated by photography after his mother got him a camera in a Kodak promotional giveaway, he swept the floors at a Canal Street photo studio and took photos for the Police Gazette, a pulp magazine with “a readership that required a certain kind of picture,” as he described it to the Times.
In 1939, he was hired to shoot for the new weekly photo magazine Friday, for which his first assignment was documenting coal miners in Harlan, Ky. A year later, he joined Friday’s West Coast office in Los Angeles, where his assignments included shooting Orson Welles on the set of “Citizen Kane.”
He also did freelance work for Life, Look and Collier’s magazines.
During World War II, he joined the Army and saw action in North Africa with the 1st Ranger Battalion, in a legendary fighting unit known as Darby’s Rangers. After suffering severe neck and arm shrapnel wounds in Tunisia, he was a combat photographer during the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily for Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper.
Known for risking his own life while photographing infantrymen under fire, he was sent home after experiencing complications from his wounds.
“His pictures of the invasion and its aftermath remain among the most outstanding documents in the annals of combat photography in any war, before or since,” author and journalist Herbert Mitgang, a Stars and Stripes colleague, wrote in “Phil Stern: A Life’s Work,” a 2003 collection of Stern photos.
Stern’s war-veteran status stood him in good stead with some of the stars he photographed in postwar Hollywood.
“It very well might have helped me get access,” he told The Times. “I don’t really know for sure, because some of them wanted publicity so bad that you didn’t have to have a Purple Heart for that. All you had to have was an expensive camera.”
In 1945, Stern married Rose Mae Lindou, a model with the John Robert Powers agency. She preceded him in death, as did his daughter, Lata, and son, Philip. His survivors include sons Peter Stern and Tom Stern, and eight grandchildren.
Stern frequently photograph Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. The connection paid off after John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960 and Sinatra was given the job of producing Kennedy’s inaugural gala.
Stern was shooting stills for Sinatra’s movie “The Devil at 4 O’Clock” at the time of the announcement, and he sneaked into the actor’s dressing room and left a note.
“Dear Frank,” Stern wrote. “Read the news today. I hereby apply for the job of resident paparazzo on your inaugural project.” Stern then drew three boxes and asked Sinatra to check one. The first said, “Hell, yes"; the second, “I’ll think about it"; and the third, a profane version of “you can forget it.”
Sinatra enlisted Stern to shoot the Inaugural Ball. Among his resulting images: Sinatra deferentially lighting JFK’s cigar.
Stern lived for many years in a modest bungalow near the Paramount lot that was cluttered with decades worth of photographic prints, contact sheets and negatives.
In 2001, he donated several thousand of his Hollywood negatives, slides and transparencies to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To celebrate his 95th birthday last September, he donated 95 prints to the veterans home where he lived.
Numerous Hollywood figures have collected Stern’s work, including filmmaker Brett Ratner and Madonna, who knocked on his door to buy a shot of Marilyn Monroe.
Advertisers also tapped Stern’s historic Hollywood images. His photo of a khaki-clad Sammy Davis Jr. jumping into the air and clicking his heels was used in a Gap advertising campaign, as was his shot of a khaki-wearing Monroe.
Despite his success, Stern never endowed his work with a sense of mystery.
When asked recently what makes a good picture, he expressed puzzlement.
“I wish I knew,” he said. “I could keep taking more.”
Dennis McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.