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.
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.
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