From James Dean to JFK, from Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, the work of Phil Stern (1919-2014) and Bob Willoughby (1927-2009) marked a departure from the traditional images of Hollywood glamour. These pioneers of 20th century photography were able to create intimate, sensitive and powerful images, feeding American history and popular culture using a different stylistic approach. Between their love of the medium, their artistic ambition and their distinctive technical approaches, they lived and immortalized the golden age of cinema and the effervescence of the jazz scene. This is what the “Picture’s Up” exhibition at the Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles highlights, via a collection of legendary photos that these two photojournalists produced throughout their careers.
Phil Stern’s signature style
“I’m always looking for perfection. Every photographer, in one way or another, if he’s serious, is. He ain’t ever going to get it. But hope springs eternal,” Stern told a journalist from the Los Angeles Times in 2003. A phrase that has since become a memorable quote. What is most fascinating about Phil Stern’s work is his ability to create instantly iconic images. They are now so rooted in the collective imagination that they seem to live and exist on their own, almost as if they had freed themselves from their true origins.
The Philadelphia native, who died in 2014 in Los Angeles at the age of 95, immortalized the aura of an era where portraits of stars mixed with those of political figures, jazz artists and WWII battlefields. Because, before becoming the “Chronicler of Cool,” as many called him, Phil Stern served in the U.S. Army as part of Darby’s Rangers, the first Ranger unit, where he was a combat photographer. Upon his return, Life magazine recruited him to cover post-war social rehabilitation. More assignments followed from Look and Collier’s magazines, and thus his second career was launched.
He gave the world a plethora of photos taken on the sets of more than a hundred iconic films, such as Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, In cold Blood and West Side Story. Whether it’s Marilyn Monroe’s heartfelt yet sad expression, John Wayne in plaid shorts and tennis shoes, or Sammy Davis Jr.’s dance leaps, his shots all have that Phil Stern signature, unique and recognizable. As David Fahey, director of the Fahey/Klein gallery, puts it: “He has an innate sense about getting the particular. He is clearly one of the most important photographers in the West.”
Bob Willoughby at the forefront
“Sometimes a filmmaker gets a look at a photograph taken on his own set and sees the ‘soul’ of his film in one still photograph. It’s rare, but it happens. It happened to me in 1969, the first time I looked at the work of Bob Willoughby during the filming of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” writes actor-director Sydney Pollack in the preface to the photographer’s book, The Star Makers On Set with Hollywood’s Greatest Directors (Merrell Publishers, 2003). And that comes off as an understatement when one looks through the photos of the man who is considered the first outdoor set photographer in Hollywood. The man who was born in Los Angeles and died at his home in Vence, France in 2009 invented the celebrity portrait as we know it today. Compared to the photos of Robert Coburn and George Hurrell, who depicted the scintillating glamour of Hollywood in staged poses, those of Bob Willoughby reveal the spontaneity and vulnerability of the superstars.
While he started out shooting great jazz artists, his career really took off when Warner Bros hired him to photograph Judy Garland on the set of A Star Is Born. His profile shot of the American actress made the cover of Life and went down in history. He soon became one of the most sought after portrait photographers of his time, shooting on the sets of more than a hundred notable films, such as The Graduate, My Fair Lady, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Fury, Bonjour Tristesse, and more. But Bob Willoughby was also an innovator, developing new photographic technologies during takes, such as the Sound Blimp, for instance, used to muffle the shutter noise; and a remote camera that allowed him to access places that would be otherwise impossible to photograph. His style is thus born from his understanding of cinema, art, technology and human beings, producing intimate images that reflect the personality and emotions of his subjects.
Two major and pioneering photographers, therefore, who were able, each in their own way, to document the history of cinema and give the public unprecedented access to the inaccessible backstage of the golden age of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
By Nathalie Dassa
Phil Stern & Bob Willoughby: Picture’s Up. Fahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles. Through January 22, 2022.