This 1962 photograph of actress Marilyn Monroe is among the images by photographer… (Bert Stern )
NEW YORK — A tiny apartment in a run-down industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn is not where you'd expect to be looking at original color negatives of Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve, Julie Newmar and Sophia Loren — especially using a bare light bulb and sheet of typing paper as a light box.
But that is what happened on a recent night, when the iconic commercial and celebrity photographer Bert Stern — perhaps known best for a photo series of Marilyn Monroe taken for Vogue six weeks before her death in 1962 — went to the home of 29-year-old artist Launa Eddy to retrieve samples of work, unseen for decades, from the peak of his career.
Eddy inherited the material from a man she worked for as a personal assistant. Edward Feldman was 81 or 82, Eddy wasn't sure which, when he passed away in November 2011. He had no known next of kin, according to Eddy, and he had her distribute many of his belongings to friends and left her the rest.
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Among the jumble of leftovers were two plastic bins and a cardboard box filled with prints, slides and original film negatives of some of Hollywood's most famous women. She noticed Bert Stern's name on much of the material and looked him up online. She'd been unaware of Stern's career as a world-renowned photographer whose work infused the so-called "golden age of advertising," and who later became one of the fashion and entertainment world's most sought-after portraitists.
She sent an email about the find, telling him he was welcome to collect what was his. "Shocked" is how Stern described his reaction, though at Eddy's home he appeared more nonplused, quietly overwhelmed by the volume of material and that Feldman, who worked for 10 years as financial director of Stern's photo studio, had so much of it. "I don't even know how to approach this," he said at one point, barely audibly.
Shannah Laumeister, director and producer of the documentary "Bert Stern: Original Madman," which premiered at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival as"Becoming Bert Stern,"accompanied Stern to Eddy's home to film the meeting, and later revealed a source of confusion as well as an initial suspicion.
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"You never know what you're gonna show up to in a situation like this," said Laumeister. "Part of us thought we were being set up for something, God knows what."
In 2008 Stern filed suit against two men in the photography industry who contacted him about seven negatives from the 1962 Vogue shoot, which lasted three days and resulted in over 2,500 photos, the most recognizable of which may be of the actress nude and dreamy-eyed on a tangle of white bed sheets.
The set was published as a book in 1992, "Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting," using the term that had come to refer to the session. Stern said that the two had somehow acquired the slides "at or from or through the lab," and finally negotiated a deal for a number of prints in exchange for returning the originals.
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"But they loved the pictures so much," he said. "There were several cases like that."
Feldman's acquisition of the photos may have been more unethical than illegal. "In the darkroom was a tray for what we called clip tests," Stern said, describing the handling of material that was meant to be destroyed. "I think a lot of it ended up there, and he seemed to collect it, and I don't know the actual story."
Determining which photos were his proved difficult for Stern, who wanted to take only his own material. Some he recognized instantly — such as a strip of a young Elizabeth Taylor in a low-cut red dress, with Tony Curtis clad in flowing Arabian costume kneeling at the foot of her chair, looking up at her in adoration. That quickly went into a paper bag at Stern's side with a short stack of others.
Most, but not all, of the shots he considered outtakes, which does not mean they are without value. In March of 2011 a single print from "The Last Sitting" — a 36-inch enlargement of a nine-image contact sheet — sold at an auction by New York's Swann gallery for $23,800.
According to Shawn Brydges, owner of New York City-based photography agency Brydges Mackinney, the material is more valuable to the memorabilia collector than those seeking to make fine art prints, where the original artist's supervision of the print is key.
Brydges, who has represented industry giants including David Bailey and currently represents Henri Peccinotti, says that for the collector, the value of the material "could go from $150,000 to $300,000, depending on the market and where it's auctioned off."
Stern said later that what struck him most was "the amount of pictures that Ed Feldman collected. I liked him, and I think he collected some of this material because he was so into art, and photography, and girls. He loved women. He loved money and he loved women."