A pair of cherry-stained lips puckered around a half-sucked lollypop. Heart-shaped shades in the same vampish hue tilted just so, revealing the sultry gaze of the archetypal nymphet hinting at both the sugary innocence and dark awakening within. You’ve seen it a thousand times. Plastered above your teenage best friend’s bed. On the wall of a kitsch café. Hovering over the counter of a ramshackled souvenir shop. The poster for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita is one of those iconic images that has become so embedded in the collective pop-culture consciousness it’s as universally recognisable as Elvis. It takes quite the visionary to capture the vision of a visionary with an image that will stand against time and weather the perpetual flux of cultural fads. It takes someone a little less ordinary. An obsessive, an eccentric, a maverick. Some would even say it takes a madman. What it takes, is Bert Stern.
“He was unafraid, unstoppable, and totally nuts,” says documentary filmmaker Shannah Laumeister of the enigmatic subject of her latest project Bert Stern: Original Madman.
Young, cocky, out of his mind, and all about the picture, Stern’s meteoric rise would coincide with the Golden Age of Advertising – his wildly successful ‘Driest of the Dry’ campaign for Smirnoff Vodka would change the face of advertising irrevocably. Over the next five decades Stern would aim his lens at a slew of famous faces from Marilyn Monroe to Brigitte Bardot to Audrey Hepburn, and create some of the most iconic imagery in history. Most notably, he captured Monroe during the most troubled period of her life, a mere six weeks before her death in 1962, in a series of 2500 frames he calls The Last Sitting. Notoriously charming, Stern had a way of disarming his subjects and cultivating a relationship that made for extraordinarily intimate portraits. Invariably, what emerges from his images is the humanity in his muses – people that were so often shrouded by public idolatry, and isolated by their own celebrity. Arguably his greatest skill was extracting from them something true, something natural, something vulnerable, a quality that so often eludes celebrity portraiture in the digital age. Through the business of lensing cultural icons, Bert Stern has himself become one.
Bert Stern and Shannah Laumeister chat to RUSSH about beautiful women, the life of a madman, and playing chess with Stanley Kubrick.
RUSSH: Bert, you arrived at your photography career at a very young age. Had you always dreamed of being a photographer?
Bert Stern: No, I never wanted to be a photographer. Wanted to be a cartoonist.
How, then, did you end up becoming a photographer?
I was drawing cartoons for The Newspaper Guild, and also working as an assistant to an Art Director at that time, and I saw a photograph by the great photographer Irving Penn on the cover of Vogue magazine. It was a still life ... And that picture changed my life. It inspired me. At that moment, I wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to be a cartoonist but then I decided that photography is more magical.
You and a handful of your contemporaries were instrumental in shaping the way the craft of photography is perceived today with regards to fashion, art, film and advertising. Were you aware of what you were creating at the time and what impact do you think your work has had on contemporary culture?
I think it was the golden age of photography and certain people were in it at that time. I guess I knew the time was very special. I knew it was very simple, and photography was very simple for me, you just push a button.
In 1962, you took what is now an iconic series of images of Marilyn Monroe just a few weeks before she passed away. How did The Last Sitting come about? What was your relationship like with the starlet?
I was under contract for Vogue and I was allowed to create 10 pages a year to do my own assignments, and I wanted to do something that had never been in Vogue before. I realised Marilyn Monroe had never appeared in Vogue, so we asked her if she’d appear and she said yes, so I went to the Hotel Bel-Air and shot the pictures. Marilyn was fabulous, I loved her. It was very exciting. She was a wonderful model. She was absolutely magic – very sexy, very funny, very beautiful. She was very inventive and highly creative – we were firecrackers. It was a once in a lifetime idea, something you could only do once, or I could do once.
How has your prolific career impacted your personal life?
It’s become a dominant force. Hard to keep up with.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Kubrick? You took some of the most striking stills of his films – especially the iconic image of Lolita. How has Kubrick influenced and inspired you both personally and professionally?
I worked in the mailroom at Look Magazine and he was the youngest photographer on staff. I met him one night in the studio while he was working late photographing a very beautiful girl; a little girl from Brooklyn named Eleanor Mostel. I met her and she and I drove home in a taxi, and he and I became good friends. We used to go out after work at the magazine later and eat in Greenwich Village all the time and talk about beautiful women. Later I ended up marrying Eleanor Mostel. I never saw the movie Lolita. I took the ideas (for the shoot) from the book not the movie, I had not seen the movie ‘til years later. So I just illustrated, it was like illustrating the Nabokov book. I think he (Kubrick) was a year or two older than me, but he was a great friend and we enjoyed each other’s company. He left still photography and went into doing movies when I joined the army. When I came out, he was a filmmaker and I became a photographer. We stayed friends and saw each other sometimes; we were both very busy so not as much as before. But we were always good friends. He used to ask me to read certain scripts, like he asked me to read ... Um … I didn’t want to read A Clockwork Orange, but the one about the atom bomb, Dr. Strangelove. He’s the one who told me I should go out with a ballet dancer. He took me to Lincoln Center for the first time; we looked down on the stage from the mezzanine at the dancers. I thought ballet dancers were not for me because they didn’t talk very much, they were too quiet, and I ended up marrying one (he laughs). Actually he introduced me to all my wives! In one way or another, he had a strong influence on my life. But he was a genius. He had big eyes. He was a very nice guy. He was Jewish like me. He used to go down to Washington Square Park … He played chess there, he loved playing chess. Don’t you think playing chess is like making a movie? Moving pieces around.
Your images have a natural intimacy to them. How do you win the trust of your subject and cultivate such an easy rapport? How important is the relationship between the photographer and subject?
That’s a funny question, if you’re asking me how I do it, well, it’s very spiritual. Basically I fall in love with what I see. Intimacy? Basically I have a deep … It would sound too pompous to answer that question because I only shoot what I like. The world is a beautiful place and to take a picture of things in this world that I like is a great honour. It is a great honour to be able to take photographs of God’s blessed works.
What have you always loved most about what you do and what have you always disliked?
Like: that it’s easy and has a lot to do with beautiful women. Dislike: that it has become too … I don’t know … I just think the digital thing is fun but it’s not as interesting as film. There’s something about the chemistry of photography that was more personal then, it was different, it had more chemistry.
Do you have a favorite image or series of images? What do you love about it/them?
I’ve always liked the portrait Edward Steichen shot of Greta Garbo as a great portrait of a woman. It appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in 1950, and Vanity Fair in 1930. I believe in the George Eastman House. It’s the quintessential portrait of a woman. It’s simple and direct.
Who has been your all time favourite person to shoot and why?
Well, I guess you could say Marilyn Monroe, but I also like Marcello Mastroianni, Gary Cooper ... A lot of people, people are interesting. I don’t know why I love shooting them, it’s just what I do.
What inspires you creatively and keeps you engaged and interested in what you do after all these years?
Interesting assignments. Like shooting Marilyn Monroe for Vogue. That’s the problem, getting excited today. Archiving all my pictures excites me, because it’s so difficult, because I don’t know how to do it. It’s very expensive. Very complicated. What inspires me creatively: you do. The world, the world is beautiful how could you not be inspired by the world? Life itself, it’s unbelievable it’s so imaginative. Photography (is) like life because it’s very imaginative. You don’t have to draw anything, you just see something, push a button and take a picture. It’s just seeing things, it’s using your inner self. You use your inner self.
RUSSH: Bert Stern: Original Madman is your first feature documentary. What made you choose Stern as the subject for your debut?
Shannah Laumeister: Suddenly I noticed that the best subject for a film project was right in front of me. I thought, well I’d been in front of his camera for so many years how could he mind if I wanted to film him? I wasn’t sure how it would go down. So that’s what I did, one weekend during a shoot in Sag Harbor – with him as photographer, of course – he pulled out his camera, and I pulled out my camera. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I decided I’m making a documentary about you’. The rest is history.
Why is Stern the ‘original madman’?
He just is. He arrived at a time when the advertising world was being reinvented, and Bert was young, cocky, and out of his mind just enough to take his endless ideas and concepts out of the studio and into the world. Nothing was stopping him from executing his ideas and desires into images. He was all about the picture. He’d do anything to get a great picture. And he succeeded over and over again. Bert certainly was influential to the revolution of the advertising world, which we now know of as The Golden Age Of Advertising. Bert had a lot of balls. He was unafraid, unstoppable, and totally nuts – both in his work and life. He both worked and caused havoc on Madison Ave. Of course there were other madmen of the time, but not many. It’s not like today. Bert started in the late 40s, early 50s, and won awards for his images right away. He became famous pretty young actually. The world was his oyster, but all he wanted to do was photograph beautiful women. And he sure did.
How long have you known Stern and what’s your relationship like?
I met Bert when I was 13-years-old. It’s like a lifetime. It’s amazing to be so related to someone you’ve known for so long. Since this movie, we’re closer than ever. When you’ve been in front of someone’s camera for so long, and given yourself, you can never walk away. It is a relationship. And when that person gives you back their life and trusts you to make a film, there’s a bond. We’ve gotten to a place beyond all of it.
How has he and his work inspired you both professionally and personally?
First it was his images, over time, I picked up on the simplicity of the images and I thought, ‘what is it that makes these images so much more?’ I realised that they’re many different things. Sometimes they’re like pop art, other times they’re like the most amazing images ever taken of icons, other times they’re like fashion images, or they just transcend reality and take you to another realm. Sometimes they’re so spiritual because he captures something so very human about his subjects. That’s what it’s about: to create something so simple that it lives over time, because it’s always changing, and people can put their own interpretation into it. When I was shooting the film, he would not let anybody shoot him but me. I’d get very upset and irate, stressed about the camera, the sound, the angles, light, etc. Bert would say “just feel it”, which sounds cheesy but after enough practice, one has to get out of their own way. He knew what he was doing. I think that’s when he really took on being a mentor, by hardcore restrictions and a few occasional words of encouragement.
What is Stern’s most endearing quality and what would be his greatest weakness?
Most endearing quality is his creativity; it’s a point of reference where we can always be related to each other. His greatest weakness is his fear, but then again, isn’t that everyone’s weakness?
What do you think are the key components to making a compelling documentary film?
Passion, access, hard work, perseverance, vision, knowing what you want, and being capable of fighting for it.
What was the creative process like for you from inception to completion? What kept you motivated and inspired?
Bert’s story, and the fact that he trusted me with his story. He’d never let anyone shoot him before. I knew it was special, even when I doubted myself.
What advice would you give to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Ooh, don’t go into it unless you’re in for the long haul. Don’t go into it looking for rewards. The rewards come when you least expect it, and they come in the most unobvious ways. The main one being growth. Documentaries have the power to change people’s lives, but first your life changes, and then if you’re lucky, you get the gift of everyone else’s life it (has) changed … And the chain can keep going.
Do you have a favorite one or series of Stern’s images? Why do you love it/them?
I love them all. My favourites are probably the pyramid shots, many of his shots of Allegra Kent, his ex-wife, and a few Marilyns. There are some fabulous shots of The Twins, two girls that are companions of his currently.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a project about the artist de Kooning, which I will be a Producer and have a small role – yes, an acting role – in the film. It will be fun to do a little acting again. I am also currently writing the feature film story of Bert Stern. I am very excited about it, and plan to direct it.