ARTICLE ALIX BROWNE
PHOTOGRAPHY BERT STERN
REMEMBERING A MASTER: BERT STERN DIED LAST WEEK (JUNE 25TH) AT 83, AND LEFT A RICH LEGACY
VIA 2007'S V47
BEFORE THERE WERE CELEBRITY PHOTOGRAPHERS, THERE WAS AN ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHER WHO SHOT ICONIC CELEBRITIES. BERT STERN REMEMBERS SHOOTING MARILYN, LIZ, AND MOSS
Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa over and over and over again. For different patrons. Using different models. Same lighting, same quaint landscape in the background, same tight-lipped smile. That’s sort of what life has been like for the Brooklyn-born photographer Bert Stern ever since he memorialized Marilyn Monroe wearing little more than some eye makeup and a bedsheet.
That was 1962. Over a career spanning many decades, and that involved such periods as serving as an army photographer in the Korean War and running off to Spain in the ’70s, 77-year-old Stern has seen and shot a lot of other things. “I mean, I have thousands of other subjects and pictures,” he says from his uptown Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River. “I’m not going to say they’re better, but they are interesting in their own way.” Take, for example, his now-fabled 1985 ad for Smirnoff vodka where he somehow managed to turn one of the Egyptian pyramids upside down in a martini glass. Or the promotional image of Sue Lyon for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (heart-shaped sunglasses—Stern’s idea). Or the intimate (and prescient) Life magazine candids of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Rome, off duty from the set of Cleopatra. (This is not to mention Jazz on a Summer’s Day, his film about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and the first festival documentary ever made—Stern was not yet 30). But it’s Marilyn who keeps rearing her platinum-blonde head. When we sat down with him, he had just returned from Paris where he had had a show of his Marilyn photos. He had also just shot an ad campaign for L’Oréal—inspired by, well, you know.
ALIX BROWNE You shot the Marilyn pictures very early in your career. Do you think they’ve eclipsed everything you’ve done since?
BERT STERN Well, they’re the most popular.
AB Did L’Oréal ask you to recreate the Marilyn pictures?
BS It was a cosmetics shoot. They found a girl and made her look like Marilyn, and they put pearls in her hands and they had all this eye makeup.
AB How does it make you feel to revisit these pictures?
BS Well, it’s a job, and it was a good job and I got to stay at the
Ritz, which I’d never stayed in. I just wanted to go through those revolving doors where Princess Diana had walked through. I didn’t feel anything about recreating anything because all I shot was what they put in front of me. There’s nothing to recreate.
AB But don’t those pictures ever come back to haunt you?
BS Every day. There are endless requests for Marilyn. Marilyn is the most popular subject that I shot, even though it was just one sitting.
AB It’s also the way that you shot her—the intimacy of the pictures.
BS Basically I was under contract to Vogue at the time; I had only worked for them a year or two. And the contract opened up in such a way that I was allowed to do anything I wanted for a certain number of pages per year—just ten pages. So I tried to think what had not yet been done. What interested me was women. Besides the woman I was married to [the ballerina Allegra Kent], it was Marilyn Monroe. I didn’t want to do fashion, I just wanted to do pictures of her. I asked that they get me accessories—because I didn’t expect her to just do it nude, that was really her idea in a sense. After we got all of these transparent scarves and jewelry at the Bel Air hotel she looked up through one of the scarves and she said, “Do you want to do nudes?” I said, “That’s a good idea.” And she said, “Well, I have a scar,” because she had had a gall bladder operation six weeks before. I said, “It doesn’t bother me.” This was before computers—now we could remove it, but then you had to retouch it. So she asked George Masters, the hairdresser, “George, what do you think about my doing some nudes?” He said, “Oh, divine.”
AB Leave it to the hairdresser.
BS The picture I was after was something comparable to Edward Steichen’s portrait of Greta Garbo. I was really only after one picture, but it ended up going on and on and on ’til we had thousands.
AB Was there a precedent for celebrity portraiture at that time?
BS No, never. They had never had a celebrity on the cover of Vogue up to that point. They didn’t even with my pictures, which I thought was pretty dumb. They should have run a cover of it, but they didn’t.
AB It seems fashion was more of a priority back then.
BS Fashion was the priority. They had to make her hair look more presentable, which is why Kenneth was asked to come. Marilyn got fed up while we were shooting this Dior dress. She said, “I’m tired of doing fashion,” and she picked up some flimsy bed jacket that was on one of the chairs and said, “How ’bout this?” And she went off into the bathroom and put it on, came out, and lifted up the top veil and said, “How’s this for 36?” I didn’t know if she meant her age or her bust size.
AB But you had shot Elizabeth Taylor already at that point?
BS Two weeks before. But that was a different story. It was very square. It was Cleopatra.
AB So she was all done up?
BS In character and without nudity. She did her own eye makeup, which took two hours. Maybe four hours. And then they flew in Alexandre de Paris to do her hair. And they were more formal portraits.
AB What about the more candid Liz Taylor and Richard Burton photos swimming in the sea?
BS 20th Century had hired me to cover the movie, because in those days if they had a good photographer Life magazine would run it. I flew to Rome, which was a lot of fun, and hung out with them. They had a small boat, which they would have lunch on. They’d leave the set so her makeup was always on, and we’d go on the boat, have lunch, and they’d romp around. I would shoot black-and-white pictures of them on my little Nikon. Candids, we called them. I showed them to Life who thought they were having a wild affair. I said, “No, but they are going to get married.” They laughed at me. I said, “You’ll see.”
AB Having shot those pictures it was probably not so exciting to shoot Madonna or Kate Moss…
BS No, Marilyn was the most exciting. And she was the best model—though Kate Moss is a wonderful model and Madonna is very beautiful. But when I did Madonna, I really only did one or two pictures. She was scary to me. Tough. Marilyn was much more playful.
AB There are certainly pictures of Kate that try to emulate your Marilyn photos.
BS Well, that’s been going on for a long time. There are a lot of takeoffs on the “last sitting.”
AB Does it amuse you to see them?
BS At first. Steven Meisel did a takeoff on the last sitting with Madonna, which I resented at the time, but then I got over it. I decided it didn’t really matter. And as Steven has said, everybody copies. Except I didn’t copy. When I took the last sitting they were my own ideas. But there have been many copies and there still are. In fact, maybe I’m even copying myself—maybe not.
AB Marilyn edited out quite a few of them.
BS Crossed out. Which became some of the best pictures. But she crossed things out because there was crooked eyeliner, or something personal she didn’t like.
AB Can you even imagine that happening today—someone of that caliber just showing up and saying, “Okay, let’s do some nudes?”
BS You mean like Britney Spears?
AB Well, if you can compare Britney to Marilyn Monroe, yes.
BS It’s totally different today. It’s an industry. That didn’t exist when I shot Marilyn. People magazine didn’t exist until the ’70s. The paparazzi were in Italy. Like when we were doing Liz Taylor, we noticed there were people trying to take pictures. But we were too far away. And I wanted to get a picture of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton kissing. So I said, “Can we go outside behind the studio when the sun is setting”—I always shot at sunset—“and shoot against a wall?” And they said, “Well what about the paparazzi?” And I said, “What’s that?” Life was the magazine. To get the cover of that was the big thing. So it was a different game.
AB If somebody asked you to shoot Britney Spears like Marilyn, would you?
BS Sure, I would shoot her. I think she’s very cute. I think I would probably get some nudity with her. It might be fun.
Never-before-published photograph of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Ischia, Italy, 1962 Photography Bert Stern