August 5 marked the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death and, for several weeks, there has been extensive media coverage about the screen legend. But for years photographer Bert Stern has been used to people asking him about Monroe.
Stern - a legend in his own right - took the last photographs of Monroe only weeks before she died. Now 82, he's not just being asked about them because of the anniversary. It's because Stern's own career is the subject of a new feature-length documentary Bert Stern, Original Madman.
"This being the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death does bring things to the front," the softly spoken Stern says on the phone from his New York home.
"Marilyn just seems to be the most popular subject of my career. I didn't take her best picture, but certainly one of the best. People seem to have an endless interest in her. People keep asking me 'why?' and I don't really know why."
Original Madman includes Stern's two sessions with Monroe in Los Angeles in June and July 1962 for Vogue magazine. After the star's death, they became known as "The Last Sitting".
But the film also details Stern's significant contribution to advertising, photography and film. He began his career with only a limited knowledge of photography. (For the first four years he only used daylight for lighting in his studio because he had no real idea how to use artificial lighting or a light meter.) He has photographed many of the world's best-known actors and celebrities including Louis Armstrong, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and, recently, Lindsay Lohan.
Stern helped revolutionise photography's impact in advertising. One creative photograph for Smirnoff vodka, taken at the Great Pyramid of Giza, established vodka in the United States, where previously it was never a popular drink.
One of Stern's first jobs was as a mailroom clerk at Look magazine. He became close friends with a young staff photographer named Stanley Kubrick. Later, when Kubrick was shooting Lolita, he hired Stern to take photographs of 14-year-old actress Sue Lyon. Stern found a pair of love-heart-shaped sunglasses and suggested Lyon wear them for the session. It ended up being the enduring image of Kubrick's 1962 movie.
Earlier, Stern had also made his own movie - the feature documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. It's considered one of the best music documentaries ever made. Stern also shot a series of documentaries about British model Twiggy when she came to the United States in the 1960s. "Then I realised that making movies was very complicated," Stern says. "It was not as simple as photography."
Over the years he'd get the occasional request from a film-maker wanting to make a documentary about him. But Stern says he's always felt uncomfortable being filmed while being interviewed. The only reason he agreed to Original Madman was because it was to be made by his old friend, model and occasional lover Shannah Laumeister. "I had known Shannah for a long time, since she was 13, and I had done a lot of pictures of her over the years until she decided she wanted to make a movie about me. So she turned the camera on me. She is the only person that I would agree to do that with. I don't do any other on-camera interviews."
In the film, other top photographers praise Stern for his achievements and his success. But the film also shows that success came with a price. Stern is open in discussing his failed marriages and a low point in the early 70s when he was hospitalised because of drug use. For a time he abandoned the US and lived in Spain. He's also upfront in saying he was keen to "make out" with some subjects, but he pulled back from any dalliance with Monroe.
But he still clearly remembers why he wanted to photograph Monroe. "Those pictures are fairly memorable. I had the opportunity to make up my own assignments for Vogue magazine at that period and I was allowed to have a certain amount of pages per year to do what I wanted. I was trying to think of something that I had never seen in Vogue and I came up with the idea of Marilyn Monroe [who] had never been in Vogue magazine, which I thought was really strange. I thought it would be a great subject.
"People always ask the same question 'what was she like?' and 'why was she so famous?' I don't know the answer."
Such is the aura around "The Last Sitting", four years ago Stern photographed a homage to it featuring Lohan for New York magazine. The response was mixed. Some people felt it diluted the power of the Monroe photographs. "Some people resented that she was 'trying to be like Marilyn Monroe', which was silly," says Stern.
An aspect of Stern in Original Madman is his ability to get his subjects to relax - a possible reason for the lengthy period he had with Monroe. "Much of it is a non-verbal kind of relationship. It's not really something that we talk about. It's a connection you make with something or somebody. I guess I see something for the first time and it has a definite impact on you. You either like or you don't like it," he says.
Not every subject was easy to photograph, but Stern says he's rarely clashed with the big names he's photographed. He remembers British actress Mary York, wife of playwright John Osborne, who starred on Broadway and in the film version of his play Look Back in Anger in 1959. "I just couldn't - it didn't work out. She was too difficult for me, so I didn't take that picture," Stern says, still sounding disappointed after more than 50 years.
"The other time was Rex Harrison. He came to the studio and he said he had 10 minutes. I said '10 minutes is not enough'. So I didn't do that picture."
Stern says he doesn't take a lot of photographs now. Much of his time is spent in sorting out an archive of his work, as well as the occasional exhibition. Stern photographs can sell for more than $100,000 at auction. But Original Madman is driving another dream. He wants a feature drama based on his life. Asked which movie star he would like to play him, Stern answers quickly - 34-year-old James Franco. "I saw him on TV one day. I said 'boy, I can see that he thinks with his eyes'. There is something about him. I thought it was very much the way I think."
Bert Stern, Original Madman screens in the NZ International Film Festival at the Paramount, today, 2.30pm and 6.45pm
- © Fairfax NZ News
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