Icons of Photography: Bert Stern

Bert Stern was born – as Bertram – ‘early in the morning’ on October 3, 1929, into eastern European Jewish Brooklyn. Like other sons of that immigrant world, he lost himself – and so found himself – in the imaginary universe of comic strips, particularly the fantasy dreamed up by a couple of young Jews in Cleveland. ‘Superman was my only reality of the time,’ he said in 1981 – when he had not long returned to work after years spent in a wilderness of self.

Before those lost years, though, he had become a Superman himself, of sorts. He realised – or decided, perhaps – that he wanted to be a photographer in Japan, on his way back home from serving in the Korean war. ‘I knew I could be a photographer. I knew how to see. Everything I saw I put into a frame.’

At his height, he had a four-floor studio in central Manhattan, with the fastest lift in the city rushing him up and down the building to consult with clients. It cost him $10,000 a week just to keep it running. He lived in a penthouse across the street, with his own swimming pool. ‘I was a jukebox photographer in the 1960s. I was moving fast and didn’t have any time.’

He certainly lived up to the birthright of his name — Stern is German for star. He had his own art superstore, called On First – as in ‘on 1st Avenue’. (It failed.) He made the movie, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, with its lustrous worshipping of Anita O’Day’s giant-brimmed hat. He made more than 300 TV commercials and three US TV specials with the elfin model from Neasden, Twiggy. He photographed Sue Lyon as the sexually precocious Lolita – reading a Superman comic. Realistically or not, he believes he was the model for the photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Well, him and Bailey. ‘The sexual encounters seemed familiar,’ he said.

He was the great photographer of Madison Avenue dreaming. As Art Kane was to colour magazines, so Stern was to 1950s and 1960s advertising. He created not just the dream but the dream of the dream – the illusion, the wonderful, enrapturing illusion, that you could have it all. That we all could have it all.

The TV show Mad Men’s history is false, dishonest even. Copywriters had been king in the immediate post-war of adman legend David Ogilvy and his ilk. By the time of Mad Men’s Brill Building era setting, it was the image that ruled not the word. Photographers were king. In 2013, Stern was the subject of a full-length documentary. It’s called Bert Stern: Original Mad Man.

You can pinpoint the date and place that power switch started, too. It was 1953, just outside the tiny desert community of White Sands, New Mexico. There, a simple – but stunningly lit – picture was put together by Stern. (Irving Penn had turned the gig down.) The landscape is washed out, drained of colour, its emptiness a siren call to our unfulfilled – in truth, unfulfillable – desires.

Its composition is a series of triangles, invoking – however unknowingly – the formal requirements of Renaissance devotional painting. There is a man in a black suit and hat, sitting on a gate-backed chair. Both man and chair are in profile. There is a Martini glass – Baccarat Crystal, naturally. There is a lemon, smack at the eye’s focal point, sluttishly enticing in its shameless, flaunting, Mediterranean brightness. And, there, in the foreground, is the point of the image – a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. 

Overnight, advertising switched from telling us what we should buy to illuminating our secret dreamscapes – and letting us know that we could make those dreams real by, say, investing five dollars in a bottle of vodka. Show, don’t tell. ‘Becoming a famous photographer took me about 20 minutes one day,’ said Stern, of the moment that Smirnoff ad appeared, full-page bleed, in the pages of LIFE magazine.

Not only did it transform Stern’s life. Not only did it upend advertising. It also revolutionised our drinking habits. At the height of the Cold War, Stern convinced Americans to start a love affair with that most essentially Russian of liquors, vodka. Within three years, vodka was outselling gin in the US – and Smirnoff had an 80% share. (Incidentally, though the Smirnoff vodka did have Russian history, it was by then as American as A1 Sauce: both were made by the same company, far from any steppe or desert, in the town nicknamed ‘Insurance Capital of the World’, Hartford, Connecticut.)

Still and all, the Smirnoff shot is not the image that made Stern’s name. As giant as his contribution to advertising was, his fame was created by the pictures – the strange, strange pictures – he took of Marilyn Monroe, for Vogue. The Last Sitting, he took to calling the three days of sessions – a religious, even religiose, echo, conflating the desires for transcendence and, well, desire. Just weeks before her death, Stern managed to convince a subject of universal desire – at the age of 36 and exhausted by her affair with the President – to strip for him and the world.

Their impact, though, goes way beyond the obvious – and not at all cheap – thrill of a diaphanous glimpse of the breasts of the world’s most lusted-after woman. The pictures provoke an obvious question, of course – deliberately, I guess. Did Stern have sex with her? Are these pictures of the afterglow of a one-night stand with a woman who, by any account, launched a thousand dreams? A shallow, prurient question, of course – and all the more profoundly human for it. 

Stern has hinted that it did happen. That it is only a hint might indicate he is lying. More likely, the hint is itself a hint to something more complex – another possibility, which might account for the pictures’ longevity. It’s not a comfortable one. It’s this. Monroe is drunk, lushed-up, glazed-eyed in almost every shot. She’s like a young girl who was been persuaded to shed her clothes for the camera by a smart, calculating photographer. And that, troublingly, is, I think, why the pictures have had such an after-life. They capture – both knowingly and unknowingly – our universal complicity in our creation of Marilyn Monroe as a sacrificial princess for our own unspeakable complexities. Now that’s a photograph.

In 1971, Stern’s wife, dancer Allegra Kent, took their children and left him. He shut down his hyperbolic Manhattan studio and retired hurt and broken. By 1978, though, he was back in the advertising game. In 1983, he created The Little Black Pill Book – 18 million copies sold, it’s claimed. In 1985, he did the Pirelli calendar.

And there is his book of Marilyn Monroe pictures, The Last Sitting. On its cover, the movie star is naked, her arms out to her sides. In front of her is the orange mark she’d put there to indicate she didn’t want Stern to use that picture. It’s the shape of a crucifix. The sacrilege is deliberate and knowing. Photographer, know thyself.

Bert Stern died in New York on the 26th June, 2013. 

© Peter Silverton 2021

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