Bert Stern, photographer of celebrities, dies at 83

Neilson Barnard/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA - NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 09: Photographer Bert Stern attends the Dior and The Weinstein Company's opening of "Picturing Marilyn" at Milk Gallery on November 9, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company)

Bert Stern, a self-taught photographer who created high-concept images for advertising in the 1950s, made a renowned jazz film and captured Marilyn Monroe in a revealing series of photographs weeks before her death, died June 25 at his home in New York City. He was 83.

Shannah Laumeister, a filmmaker who made a documentary about Mr. Stern in 2011, confirmed his death to the Associated Press but did not indicate the cause. She was his companion and said they were secretly married in 2009.

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With his highly polished images for magazine stories and advertising campaigns, Mr. Stern became one of the most renowned photographers of his era.

When he began his career, he said, he didn’t know how to read a light meter. But by the mid-1950s, with his memorable images for Smirnoff vodka, Mr. Stern was transforming advertising photography from utilitarian snapshots to something more conceptual and self-consciously artistic.

“I don’t consider myself a photographer,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “I’m a designer with a camera.”

Beginning with a simple slogan — “The driest of the dry” — Mr. Stern searched for innovative ways to illustrate a vodka martini for Smirnoff. He depicted men in dark suits sitting amid sand dunes, holding martinis in their hands. He photographed a camel walking down New York’s Fifth Avenue.

For his most striking image, he traveled to Egypt and placed a martini glass in the sand, with the Great Pyramid of Giza towering behind it. The tip of the pyramid, suffused in a pinkish-gold light, is refracted upside down in the liquid inside the glass.

In Laumeister’s 2011 documentary, “Bert Stern: Original Mad Man,” acclaimed designer George Lois said Mr. Stern’s advertising photographs were “breathtaking because they were ideas.”

His images were credited with helping bring about advertising’s “creative revolution” of the 1950s and 1960s, portrayed in the AMC series “Mad Men.”

Determined to produce a movie before he turned 30, Mr. Stern took film cameras to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. His original idea of making a feature film with a story line and dialogue didn’t pan out, but the resulting documentary, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” is considered a landmark.

The film mixes crowd scenes and images of sailboats with performances of musicians such as Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Gerry Mulligan and Louis Armstrong. Mr. Stern often said he didn’t know much about music, and jazz aficionados have suggested that his co-director, Aram Avakian, was responsible for filming and editing most of the concert footage.

Nonetheless, the film itself is a triumph. “ ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’ is the best film ever done on jazz,” Newport festival founder George Wein said.

Beyond advertising and film, Mr. Stern was in constant demand for his portraits, including film stars Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando and 1950s supermodel Suzy Parker. He photographed teen actress Sue Lyon wearing heart-shaped sunglasses for the 1962 film “Lolita.” He went to Rome to shoot photos of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton while they were making “Cleopatra” and beginning a torrid love affair.

In 1962, Mr. Stern received what would become his most celebrated assignment, when Vogue magazine asked him to photograph Monroe. He met her at Hollywood’s Hotel Bel-Air, with three bottles of Dom Perignon champagne on ice.

“I told her that she looked beautiful and she replied, ‘What a nice thing to say,’ ” Mr. Stern recalled in a 2011 interview with the Sydney paper the Australian. “She was much more beautiful and easier to work with than I expected.”

Within minutes, Mr. Stern said, Monroe was out of her clothes and posing with rumpled sheets, diaphanous silk scarves, clusters of jewels and strings of pearls. He snapped photographs until dawn, as the bottles emptied. With no one else in the room, Mr. Stern sometimes sat beside Monroe, shooting their reflection in a mirror.

“I was interested in her as a personality, not as a model,” he said, “so I only took a few accessories. I didn’t want to shoot ‘fashion.’ ”

But the editors at Vogue wanted at least some clothing in the photographs and sent Mr. Stern back to Hollywood for two more sessions in July 1962, weeks before her death on Aug. 5 at age 36.

Mr. Stern’s photographs became known as “The Last Sitting.” Many were published in a 1982 book, but it wasn’t until 2000 that all 2,571 images were published in “Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting.”

Monroe saw the contact sheets and used an orange marker to cross through some of the images she didn’t like — highlighting them even more. In the photographs, Monroe looks radiant, fun-loving, tipsy and eternally seductive.

“Maybe she trusted me,” Mr. Stern said.

Bertram Stern was born Oct. 3, 1929, in Brooklyn. After leaving high school, he worked in the mailroom at Look magazine, where he became an assistant art director. He moved to Mayfair magazine as art director and began to shoot pictures on the side. He was a photographer and film cameraman in the Army in the early 1950s.

An early marriage to model Teddy Air ended in divorce. Mr. Stern was married to ballet star Allegra Kent from 1959 until their divorce in 1975.

In addition to Laumeister, his survivors include three children he had with Kent; a sister; and three grandchildren.

After a long addiction to amphetamines, Mr. Stern published a collection of unadorned clinical close-ups of prescription pills for “The Pill Book,” which may be his most widely seen work. Published in the 1970s, the book has sold almost 20 million copies.

As time went on, Mr. Stern became more deeply identified with his intimate photographs of Monroe. She seemed radiant during their hours together, Mr. Stern said, and more than a little flirtatious.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I knew I’d never shoot her again.”

Mr. Stern was known to have had affairs with many women, and people often asked how close he became to America’s best-known sex symbol.

“If she had said, ‘Let’s go for a drive in the desert’ or ‘Come to my house,’ then who knows,” he said in 2011. “But nothing ever happened between us.”

 
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