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Bert Stern (American, 1929-2013)


Birth Place: New York City (New York state, United States)

Bert Stern (1929-2013) is one of the best-known portrait photographers of the 20th century. Over the course of an extremely prolific career, he produced iconic images of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Twiggy, Truman Capote, and Marilyn Monroe. His portraits are simple, clean, and evocative -- there is no room for ambiguity in a Stern portrait. This aesthetic shaped his artistic and commercial work and completely changed the very nature of both the fashion and advertising worlds. No longer were images there to serve as buffers for text -- a Stern image speaks for itself.

Born in Brooklyn, Stern taught himself photography at an early age. He dropped out of high school at 16 and took a job in the mailroom of Look magazine, where he met the director Stanley Kubrick, then a staff photographer for Look. During this time Stern learned the ins and outs of commercial photography from Kubrick, before eventually leaving to become the art director of Flair magazine.

Kubrick’s relationship with Stern would culminate in Stern photographing press pictures for Lolita (1962), Kubrick’s first major motion picture. Stern’s instantly recognizable photograph, featuring actress Sue Lyon in heart-shaped glasses sucking a lollipop, became the poster for the film. It was during this time that Stern learned the value of human psychology in visual art.

Stern’s career would briefly be put on hold during the Korean War, where he served in the US army as a cameraman and photographer. When he returned to the states in the second half of the 1950s, he would find work as a commercial photographer for luxury brands like Smirnoff. These advertisements would make him rich, connecting him with celebrities and high society-types that would signal the next phase of his career as a highly sought-after portrait photographer.

While Bert Stern would photograph a number of celebrities, there was one muse that would haunt him for the rest of his life. In June of 1962, Vogue magazine commissioned Stern to take photographs of Marilyn Monroe. The shoot, which would take place just six weeks before Monroe’s death, both enchanted and disturbed him. While some of the images would appear in Vogue, it wouldn’t be until twenty years later that Stern would publish The Last Sitting (1982), a compilation of over 2,500 images that Stern shot of Monroe. Some of these images featured a large X, put there by Monroe to indicate that she disliked the image.

Stern continued to photograph throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties. During this time he would be an integral part of the best selling book, The Pill Book (1979), a guide to the most prescribed drugs in the US. Stern’s photographs of these pills, strikingly colored and boldly lit, became a natural dovetail to his work with celebrities. Above all else, Stern loved to show desire. Indeed, in a career spanning the entire second half of the twentieth century he didn’t just show us that desire, he defined it.

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