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His lens never blinked

Phil Stern: A Life's Work; Essays by Patricia Bosworth, Nat Hentoff, and Herbert Mitgang; foreword by Brett Ratner; introduction by Carol McCusker; powerHouse Books: 256 pp., $75

December 28, 2003|Eric Lax | Eric Lax is the author of "Woody Allen: A Biography" and the forthcoming "The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat."

Generally a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of Phil Stern it is worth a lot more, so this review will be short; his pictures speak for themselves.

The photos in this large-format collection, 11 1/2 by 14 inches, are as real as Life -- and printed on better paper. The three sections of photos -- "World War II," "The Jazz Life Behind the Scenes" and "Hollywood" -- are breathtaking in their immediacy. Close-ups are actual size; one feels like Harry Potter peering into one of those everything-in-it-comes-alive frames at Hogwarts.

Stern, now 84, started in the 1930s as a photographer for the Police Gazette, then moved to the staff of the great New York newspaper PM. Before World War II, he was established as a first-rate photographer working for Life, Colliers, the Saturday Evening Post, Photoplay and Look.

He left that behind to become a war photographer, joining what were considered the most courageous fighting men in the U.S. Army -- the all-volunteer force known as Darby's Rangers, named for their commander, Col. William Darby. Wounded by machine-gun fire in the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia in March 1942, Stern tried to rejoin his unit but was discharged because his injuries were considered too severe to let him continue in active service. He was awarded the Purple Heart and, after several months' recovery, found a way to rejoin his buddies: as a photographer for the armed forces daily newspaper, Stars and Stripes, in the summer of 1943, just in time to cover the Sicilian campaign that brought the downfall of Fascism.

Herbert Mitgang, a Stars and Stripes colleague who went on to become a distinguished reporter for the New York Times, writes in his introductory essay to Stern's war photos that Stern was "the outstanding photographer in North Africa and in the Mediterranean theater of operations.... All of our battle-hardened readers knew that when the credit on a picture read 'Photo by PHIL STERN,' it was the real thing -- an action shot taken under fire, not a posed picture."

Stern's photos put the viewer in the battle: The person behind a Darby's Ranger about to leap off the landing craft in the first assault on a Sicilian beachhead is not Stern with his camera but you, and you anticipate the feel of the water and the dash toward comrades already ashore. You can smell the freshly dug earth receiving a Ranger's flag-draped coffin in Algeria. And it is you who nearly steps on the charred remains of a soldier, almost unrecognizable as human except for his undamaged head of light hair lying beside the burned-out hulk of a German weapons carrier.

The emphasis is on "behind" in the section aptly titled "The Jazz Life Behind the Scenes." Jazz guru Nat Hentoff writes that Stern too is "an improviser who doesn't hesitate to dare." His shots of jazz players in action and at rest are as immediate as his war photos. He captures the camaraderie of Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich and Norman Granz; exhaustion as Gene Krupa hunches over his drums during a recording session; and the sheer joy of making music. His candid shots of saxophonist Lester Young, pianist Art Tatum and Billie Holiday reveal the person behind the music. A photo of Vladimir Horowitz in his dressing room after a Los Angeles concert in 1978, his eyes locked with Oscar Peterson's, documents a meeting of keyboard titans in relaxed mutual respect.

Befitting the age of celebrity we live in, half the book is devoted to movie stars, but Stern sees through the gloss. The faces are immediately familiar but the characters are different. Some shots are posed, but most freeze that 1/125th of a second when the face peeks from behind the mask: James Dean, a favorite subject, with friends in a diner; Marilyn Monroe in a bare-shouldered gown and long sparkling earrings, her life-sized face caught wearing a wistful expression. John Wayne, in familiar Western garb, as Rooster Cogburn on the set of "True Grit," a black patch over his left eye, his thumbs hitched in his belt. Standing next to him is his son Ethan, perhaps 10, a patch over his left eye, his right hand on a six-shooter, his left thumb hitched in the gun belt. Then there's Wayne in Acapulco, wearing rope-soled canvas shoes and tight bathing trunks, ready to light a cigarette as he gazes at a shapely leg in the foreground.

Stern clearly has been trusted by celebrities from Wayne, Dean, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra to Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, but he did not pal around with many of them. Patricia Bosworth quotes him in her splendid essay introducing this portion of the book: "I didn't care to know them, usually -- so many of them were frankly a pain ...." Yet Stern's outsider's eye, a camera shutter left open in intimate settings, "often reveals," Bosworth writes, "other layers, other expressions -- haunted, eerie, mysterious, surprising -- in the faces of celebrities we thought we knew." *

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