Camera Culture: Interview with Photographer Bert Stern

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Camera Culture: Interview with Photographer Bert Stern

Bert Stern was a kid from Flatbush, Brooklyn who turned out to be one of the most recognized photographers of our time, shooting some of the most iconic images of the most famous people of the second half of the 20th Century. His commercial and fashion work has influenced generations of photographers and created more than one cultural touch stone in his craft. We had a chance to briefly speak with him about his life, career and photography.

 

Starting Out

Duggal Staff (DS): How are you this morning?

Bert Stern (BS): I’m fine, how are you?

DS: Pretty good. You started your career at Look Magazine, how did you get that first job?

BS: My father sent my brother and I to get jobs in a bank. I got a job sorting mail in a bank, and the bank guy said I was too talented to be sorting mail in a bank, that I should get a job in a magazine. So I went back to the employment agency and told them I wanted a job in a magazine, and they said the only job they had was in the mailroom, and I said “fine.” So I got a job in the mailroom at Look Magazine, and in delivering the mail I met an art director named Hershel Bramson. I got to know him and he gave me a job as his assistant and taught me design. After learning to be an art director I got a job at a small magazine named Mayfair where I worked for the photographer, Ed Brown, who taught me how to take pictures with a 35mm. I bought a little camera and started taking pictures.

DS: When you moved on to Mayfair, was that when you were first found your interest in photography?

BS: Well I first got into photography as an assistant at Look Magazine for the art director, when I saw a cover of Vogue magazine by Irving Penn and fell in love with the image. Up until then I was not interested, but seeing his work got me interested in photography.

DS: While you were at Look is that where you first met Stanley Kubrick?

BS: Stanley Kubrick was the youngest staff photographer at Look Magazine at the time and in wandering the halls I met him.

DS: Is that how you got connected and started shooting stills for his films?

BS: Well he was just a still photographer then, but we became friends. We used to hang out in the village and talk and used to have dinner. And then I got drafted in the army, eventually, and he went on the make his first movie about a prizefighter (the 1951 short documentary, Day of the Fight), I think it was. When I came out of the army he had made his first film, which is called Fear and Desire (1953), and I went to see a screening. But we were always friends.

DS: What were some of the first things that you learned when you were getting into photography and you were developing your career in that field?

BS: Well photography was kind of new to me, you know, before I wanted to be a cartoonist but after I learned design I gravitated towards photography. And photography was easy for me. I was living at home in Brooklyn and I would take the train to New York and do my work, and go back to Brooklyn, but I liked having a little 35mm camera with me and took snap shots of my family and things like that.

DS: Were you always interested in portrait photography?

BS: No. It was only when I became an art director of this little magazine (Mayfair) that I began to think I could do some of the pictures.

DS: You weren’t formally trained in photography, right? You didn’t go to photography school.

BS: No I didn’t go to any school. People helped me, they taught me how to develop film and how to read a light meter; things like that. So I did get a lot of help from friends. I think if you’re going to be a photographer, just go to art school. Same principles.

The Work Behind the Work

DS: I’m curious about some of your stylistic choices and your use of triangles…

BS: I think a lot comes from my originally being interested in cartooning, so there’s a certain sense of humor maybe in my photographs. Well the art director (Hershel Bramson) was an artist and he told me that most art has a lot of triangles in it so took that as a way of setting up designs.

DS: Do you feels there’s a certain way in which you use black and white over color, or depict a certain thing with one versus the other?

BS: No, I just… when I started it was only Black and white, pretty much. You know, roll film in a 35mm camera. But when I got out of the army and I got a job doing advertising it had to be in color. That’s when I did my first color pictures.

DS: How do you relate to your subjects, because the bulk of your work is portrait photography? You generate a relationship with your subject very quickly and have to navigate it to get what you are looking for out of the shoot, what did you do to achieve that?

BS: Well if I like something I see then I like taking a picture of it. It’s very easy. You shoot what you like.

DS: Did you find there was an certain way that you found was effective for engaging people to get what you wanted out of them?

BS: Not particularly.

DS: Did you usually go into a shoot with a clear plan of what you were trying to capture?

BS: I used to have ideas, and I liked pictures that were built around ideas.

DS: Were there any specific ideas that you found yourself addressing repeatedly or that you were interested in and explored more thoroughly?

BS: I don’t know. I just do what I do. I did a lot of advertising at first. I think all my pictures are ideas, and they’re ideas made into images.

DS: You traveled a lot throughout your career for your work; did you find you enjoyed working in any one place more?

BS: I liked a lot of places, but I like India a lot. I just liked it. I like Paris. I like India. I like a lot of places.

DS: When you were younger, what were the most important things that you learned or figured out early on in terms of photography that you used for the rest of your career?

BS: Photograph what you like. If you don’t like something, you’re not going to get a good picture.

The Work Itself

DS: The summer of ’62 was pretty eventful for you-

BS: ’62 is the year I photographed Marilyn Monroe for Vogue magazine.

DS: Yes, and also you shot stills for “Cleopatra”-

BS: I did Liz Taylor for “Cleopatra”. They asked me to cover the movie and I used to go back and forth to Rome. It’s easy to photograph things you like, and photographing Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was a lot of fun.

DS: Were those significant moments in your career?

BS: Well they were high profile personalities, so I guess so.

DS: Did they change the direction of your career?

BS: No, I don’t think so.

DS: You’ve been using Duggal for a while now how did you come about starting to use them?

BS: I’ve used them for a long time. When I did the Marilyn pictures he was working for somebody and he came to see me and said, “I wanted to start his own company, can I develop some of your pictures” and I gave him the account.

DS: Do you remember when that was?

BS: I guess it was ’62.

DS: So you’ve been printing with Duggal since ‘62.

BS: On and off, yeah.

DS: What’s been your experience working with them?

BS: Duggal is a great lab. I always like to use the best lab.

DS: In retrospect, how would you like to be defined as a photographer?

BS: I don’t know. That’s up to you. I don’t define myself. I guess you can say I’m a conceptual photographer.

 

Many thanks to Bert Stern for taking the time out to speak with us and share part of his story and knowledge. Keep any eye out for future interviews with noted photographers and artists as part of our series, “Camera Culture”.

 

To learn more about Bert Stern you can visit: www.bertsternmadman.com

 

Bert Stern’s images showcased in Duggal’s front windows to celebrate the life of Marilyn Monroe 

 Photograph by Bert Stern