Phil Stern, Celebrity Photographer Who Made Hollywood Human, Dies at 95

Over his 60-year career, Phil Stern rubbed elbows with Hollywood icons and captured them in candid moments for Life, Look and other magazines. He died Saturday in Los Angeles. Brett Ratner/CPi

Renowned celebrity photographer Phil Stern, the eye behind some of the 20th century's most iconic images of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando and the Rat Pack, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 95.

In his later years, Stern suffered from emphysema and congestive heart failure while living at the Veterans Home of California, according to his agent Geoff Katz.

Stern was always easy to spot: With a camera around his neck, he'd roll his wheelchair around the assisted-living complex he lived in, making images of his neighbors and life around him.

"I call it shooting from the hip," he told Variety in August, just before his 95th birthday. At the time, he was donating 95 prints to the care facility, looking forward to sharing his life's work with the public and filling a few walls for fellow veterans to pore over.

Stern served for two years with the U.S. Army Rangers as a combat photographer in the North African and Italian campaigns during World War II. After being wounded at the Battle of El Guettar, he was awarded the Purple Heart and headed to California.

"I am honored and privileged to have worked with Phil over the last 20 years. It has been an amazing journey, he was one of a kind," wrote Katz in a press release. "His legacy will live on through his iconic images."

Stern cut his teeth as an apprentice in a New York City photo lab. Learning the tools of the trade and the daily exposure to photography inspired him to take the leap and become a photographer himself.

Stern captured Marlon Brando swaggering through town between shooting on the set of 1953’s “The Wild One.” Phil Stern/CPi

First as a new photographer in New York and then shooting for Life, Look, Collier's and other magazines over his 60-year career, Stern amassed a collection of images unmatched by all but a few of his contemporaries.

From a barrel-chested, strutting Marlon Brando, to Marilyn Monroe in a fit of the giggles, to multiple shots of Frank Sinatra yukking it up with the boys in the Rat Pack, if a pop culture moment was unfolding, it seemed as if Stern's camera was there.

His ability to relate and build relationships with celebrities as people, not idols, led to intimate moments captured for all time. When Louis Armstrong sat for him, it was a conversation captured between artists, not a static surface-level portrait. John Wayne casually having a smoke in very short shorts gives the impression that he is as comfortable around Stern as he would be at a water cooler in an office.

The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford) get campy in 1954. Sinatra was a frequent subject in Stern’s images, and their friendship would lead to Stern meeting John F. Kennedy and becoming the official photographer for the inauguration ball. Phil Stern/CPi

His friendship with Sinatra would lead to his being hand-picked by the Chairman of the Board himself as the official photographer at John F. Kennedy's inauguration gala in 1961. And perhaps most famously, his iconic image of James Dean, with his sweater pulled up to his eyes, his hair disheveled and his almost ambivalent stare fixed on the lens, captures the essence of Hollywood's bad boy of the era.

When praise would be heaped on him for the image, Stern was quick to credit Dean, saying, in multiple tellings of the story, how he nearly hit the actor with his car and in turn sparked a friendship, which led to the young actor coming up with the idea.

By all accounts, that was his nature, sharing the credit and building friends to capture the real lives behind the glitz and glamour.

Stern collaborated with Louis Armstrong a few times, shooting album covers for him and his collaborators, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Phil Stern/CPi
Marilyn Monroe at a children’s benefit at the Shrine Auditorium in 1953. “Snapdragon,” as Stern came to be nicknamed, had a special talent in creating images that felt candid rather than canned. Phil Stern/CPi