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Obituary: Famed photographer Phil Stern dies age 95

A famed photographer who shot World War II, Hollywood stars and one of the  most-famous Life magazine covers in history has died. Phil Stern was 95.

Stern’s 1939 Life cover portrait of a tired couple from Oklahoma, trying to cross the border into California in their battered Ford truck, became the iconic image of the Great Depression.

Stern was a friend of movie stars from Marilyn Monroe to Frank Sinatra, who personally hired Stern as the official photographer of President John Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball in 1961. Stern thus became the official photographer of the “Camelot” era at the White House.

Born Sept. 3, 1919, in Philadelphia, Stern became a teenage photographer for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. As a young man, he joined Darby’s Rangers —   the original U.S. Army Ranger brigade created following the nation’s entry into World War II.

Of the original 1,500 members of Darby’s Rangers, only 199 survived the war. Stern was among the last 10 still alive.

While in the Army, Stern worked for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. After the war, he became one of Life magazine’s top photographers in Hollywood.

Along the way, Stern also photographed a multitude of great jazz musicians. Impresario Norman Granz insisted Stern take all the cover photos for his Pablo Records label, including shots of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and Ella Fitzgerald.

For years, Stern sold prints of his photographs from his modest Hollywood home. One of his customers was Madonna, who showed up on his doorstep to buy his famed image of Marilyn Monroe, which showed her not as a glamorous star, but as a vulnerable and sad young woman.

When told that many admirers of his work think he is a great artist, he replied, “Matisse I ain’t.” Stern said he doesn’t believe any photographers, including himself, can ever really be called an artist “like, say, Rembrandt.”

“In my mind, a photographer is like a carpenter. He can make a beautiful cabinet and you can exclaim, `It’s a work of art,’ but it’s never
going to be a Rembrandt,” Stern said.   

But when Life magazine arranged an exhibit of its best photographs, lead photo was not a Margaret Bourke-White or an Alfred Eisenstaedt. It was Stern’s shot of the Okies at the state line. 

Stern’s political and spiritual essence was molded by the New Deal and the Depression and, as befits his time, he was a leftist.

Stern had a longtime feisty relationship with John Wayne, with the dynamics based on their political differences. Wayne called Stern a Bolshevik, and Stern called him a Neanderthal.

Stern, always a prankster, was in the former Soviet Union when he dug out a stamp with the biggest picture of Vladimir Lenin he could find, stuck it on a postcard and sent it to his Hollywood pal, “The Duke.”

After gaining a reputation for making idols out of the ordinary soldier on the battlefield, Stern then proved adept at catching the human side of many Hollywood greats.

Stern became famous for his photos of the likes of James Dean, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as Wayne and Monroe.

Even into his 70s, Phil could be seen scrambling around Hollywood on his moped to shoot his assignments. As he got older, his activities turned more and more toward archiving his huge collection. He eventually needed help getting around, but he has remained as sharp as a tack, if not a bit more cantankerous than he used to be.

In 1993, he released the book “Phil Stern’s Hollywood,’ featuring 90 black-and-white photographs showcasing his work from the 1940s through the 1970s. In 2003, he released “Phil Stern: A Life’s Work.”

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