Bert Stern’s photographs blurred the line between art and commercial photography.

Nita Bianca-Olivia
Bianca-Olivia is a regular critic for ModernTimes.review.

Sophia Loren, Liz Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Scarlett Johansson, Marilyn Monroe: the famous American photographer Bert Stern has snapped them all. Stern is particularly famous for his portrait series of Marilyn Monroe and his “Lolita with heart-shaped glasses” for the poster of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. What begins as a conventional portrait of a celebrity photographer gradually turns into a playful mirror gag between the 82-year-old and his muse Shannah Laumeister, 40 years his junior, who also directed the film. Organized into chapters and packed with photos, interviews and scenes from Stern’s daily pursuits, the film reveals a man who venerated women and raised them to iconic proportions, but could hardly relate to them in everyday life.

Bert Stern: Original Madman is a documentary about the life of the iconic photographer Bert Stern, who became hugely successful in the ‘60s through his fashion and advertising photographs. He is also famous for photographing celebrities like Sophia Loren, Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. The documentary is the directorial debut of Shannah Laumeister, his much younger life partner, and it’s a collage of images, archive footage and interviews, all tied together with personal dialogues and scenes of present day life. It tells the story of his success and the stories behind his photographs.

Stern’s personal life was never separated from his work. He had to photograph the subjects of his desires and make them his own by capturing them through the lens. The conceptual ads Bert Stern created changed the aesthetic standards of advertising while his photographs blurred the line between art and commercial photography. It is fair to say that he captured beauty while at the same time changed the standards for what is beautiful and desirable.

And not only that; Stern redefined glamour. The 60s have a certain flavour that incites imagination and makes everyone dream. To a certain point, Stern put that period in the collective mind through his images. His glamorous photos are part of his life story and they also appeal to the viewer’s fascination with the 60s and the famous people they portray.

You cannot separate Stern from his images. This is why Stern’s life takes on something of that glamorous aura by default. So the story of his rise to fame is glamorous. The narrative builds up chronologically, with him going to New York and working as a mail boy at Look magazine and his gradual rise to success. The story tells us about his many relationships, marrying famous dancer Allegra Kent, followed by the climactic moment of glory when he photographed Marilyn Monroe.After this, his life falls apart. He becomes unpredictable and aggressive because of his addiction to amphetamines; his wife takes their children and leaves. Strangely enough, this part of the documentary provokes curiosity instead of causing concern. The downfall seems part of the glamorous adventure.

Bert Stern, Original Madman
The combination of glam, sex and amphetamines is a recipe for success in a film, be it fiction or documentary. If this had been the documentary’s only angle, Bert Stern: Original Madman would have been entertaining and charming but also sterile. Such an approach would have portrayed a mythical and out-of-our-reach Bert Stern, leaving the real-life Bert Stern in the shadows.
Vogue – Liza Minelli by Bert Stern, 1968

But we see him in his home, talking or walking in the street. The images of the auction of his pictures and the interviews with his ex-wife and his children bring a personal dimension to the film and make the viewer feel for him. The documentary itself is made in the space between him and the director, Shannah Laumeister, whom he first photographed when she was 17. Later on she became his life partner. Their intimacy shows on many occasions, through their talks and the way he answers her questions. “You’re my only true friend,” he tells her. All these personal particularities take him from that world of beauty, advertising and Marilyn Monroe, and place him in real life, with all its adherent complexities.

Stern is now 82, at the age of looking back. The fact that Shannah is 40 years younger than him and that he is also in an informal relationship with a couple of twins, is consistent with his past, but not with the man we see talking to the camera. He is no longer the glamorous and famous Bert Stern. Talking of his success now makes him nostalgic. He looks at the photographs in retrospective, his eyes become sad sometimes while telling the stories. It is as if he tells the story to the camera while telling it to himself at the same time. The feeling is that he’s the one telling the story but he could just as well be sitting in the audience with the public.

The film breathes the intertwined relationship between him and the camera. In fact the camera is only a medium for him to create beauty. Women loved him because he knew how to make them look beautiful. Advertising agents loved him for his conceptual work. But for Bert Stern, these images had no intrinsic value. They were a means for him to live life. Photography and amphetamines were the same in a way, addictive. He needed to create in order to live and he couldn’t stop. “Pictures are like drugs, I’m a prisoner of all the things I’ve done,” he says.
What’s good about the film is the feeling that this story couldn’t have been better told any other way. It is a personal portrait that puts past and present in one place, the glamorous Bert Stern with the real person inside him, and gives a touching understanding of a man who dedicated his life to photography. It feels like this is the closest you can get to knowing him.
Let us end with his reflection: “Life keeps moving so it’s always over. A picture you have forever.”  

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