Bert Stern Profile
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. 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. He lived in a penthouse across the street, with his own swimming pool.
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 shot 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. You can pinpoint the date and place that power switch started, too. It was 1953, just outside the tiny desert community ofWhite Sands, New Mexico. There, a simple – but stunningly lit – picture was put together by Stern. 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’s a man in a black suit and hat on a gate-backed chair, both in profile. There’s a Martini glass – Baccarat Crystal, naturally – and a lemon, smack at the eye’s focal point, almost 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 wanted to illuminating our secret dreamscapes for us. Show not tell. “Becoming a famous photographer took me about 20 minutes one day,” said Stern, of the moment when 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 ColdWar, 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.
Still and all, though, that’s not the image that really 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. The Last Sitting, he took to calling the three days of sessions – again, that religious echo, conflating the desires for transcendence and, well, desire. Just weeks before her death, Stern managed to convince her, at the age of 36, 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.
I think there’s another possibility, though, which might account for their 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.
Bert Stern is alive and living on East 39th Street, NY NY. www.bertstern.com
Back to Categories
- Average Article Rating 0 Stars
- You must be a registered user & logged in to rate this.
Login | Register