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Style & Culture

Artistry on the sly

Photographer Phil Stern modestly ascribes his 60-year career to fate. It all comes together in his book 'A Life's Work.'

October 26, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

True, the old saw goes "a picture's worth a thousand words." But in photographer Phil Stern's case it's simpler: A good picture is worth a pithy remark. A blue one-liner. Perhaps some sparky aphorism -- with legs, of course.

Just as long as the image is straight and to the point. Much like the man who made it.

If you're lucky enough, Stern might invite you inside his home, and give you a little more back story on a particular image. In the last few weeks, in fact, he's been a little more forthcoming with the publication of his new book, "Phil Stern: A Life's Work" (PowerHouse Books) -- a fast-forward glimpse of 60 years on the job, from the battlefields of North Africa during World War II, to stolen moments at all-night jazz sessions, to rubbing elbows with Hollywood's royalty. At 84, Stern shrugs away his right-time/right-place ability to sum up a moment, grab the essence in a single frame, chalking it up to "the fickle finger of fate...."

"Come in. Meet my houseguests," says Stern, jerking his head toward a party well in progress just beyond the doorway to his modest Hollywood home. Inside, a cluster of eerily familiar, life-size cutouts of bigger-than-life legends mingle, more or less -- Louis Armstrong "takes five" on a stool, the bell of his horn resting on his knee. James Dean reclines, his Jack Purcell sneaks propped up on some telephone books. Leaping up in a reverie is Sammy Davis Jr. clad in his khakis. Nearby, Marilyn Monroe seems startled by the outburst. And in a corner, a hovering Humphrey Bogart oversees all with the same detached reserve as the man who stilled these moments all those years ago.

Stern winds through his sunny living room-cum-studio. Aside from the cutouts, there's not one photo framed on the wall. There are piles of Stern's old LP covers stacked in boxes, some prints in matte-boards piled on a side table. Above the kitchen's breakfast nook, a black-and-white collage of celebrity mugs spells out "Name Dropper"; a tiny cutout of Frank Sinatra, arms outstretched, pasted on a wooden crucifix, crowns the refrigerator: "That," he says, with a dismissive wave of the hand, "was Frank's idea."

Outside, he heads toward the patio table. "Careful. Don't step on this," he says, pulling at the tube he wears around his ears and in his nose connected to an oxygen tank. "This is what connects me to Mother Earth! If you step on it you'll kill me." He was hospitalized not long ago -- he suffered a severe emphysema attack coupled with congestive heart failure. "That's why I gotta wear this thing." It hasn't slowed him much, and that's good because there's a lot to tend to.

He settles in under an umbrella near his workspace, "the inner sanctum," abuzz with his daughter, film producer Lata Ryan; his publicist, Susan Bluttman; and assistant/neighbor Kathryn Gilbert, getting ready for the book's launch early next month, a big-deal book party and a big show at ArcLight Cinemas, curated by Fahey/Klein Gallery.

Also making intermittent appearances is Charlie the blue jay, who lights in for peanuts. "I thought he was a friend. Now I think he's a freeloader."

Stern certainly has a nose for types.

"A Life's Work" is full of his intuition. It's a lush, genre-skimming display of a man who came to photography, he says, by a fluke. "I grew up during the Depression. My dad was a salesman, a la Willy Loman. I wanted to find the best possible way to avoid becoming my father. I was determined to learn a trade. Living in New York, there was a big world out there, and a lot of empty spaces to put images. It was just the fickle finger of fate. I could have ended up doing apprentice work for a plumber and now I'd be working on your toilet."

He's only half kidding.

Stern does take a very workingman's view of his body of work. He was hired at a small magazine, Police Gazette, occasionally bumping into infamous scene-of-the-crime chronicler Weegee with his press camera, an old Speed Graphic. Later, Stern worked for a start-up magazine called Friday, which ultimately threw open the doors to Life, Look, Collier's.

Along the way, he learned how to make the most of it, whether in the trenches in Algiers, in a windowless recording studio in Hollywood or stuck on a soundstage catwalk. "I'm always looking for perfection. Every photographer, in one way or another, if he's serious, is. He ain't ever going to get it. But hope springs eternal."

Many of his portraits, at first glimpse, have the casualness of a squeezed-off snapshot. A moment happened upon. But on deeper inspection, despite how he wants to spin it, something is revealed in the tiniest gesture or a set of circumstances. It might be Monroe's befuddled/sad expression, or a famous, against-type shot of John Wayne in checked hot pants and espadrilles.

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