Even if photographer Bert Stern’s name isn’t immediately familiar to you, his work likely is. Most famous for his photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken six weeks before her death—a series that’s come to be called The Last Sitting—Stern, now 84, was throughout his long career a man with a golden touch. He created advertising images, fashion photography, films, and books that helped transform American visual and popular culture.
Stern’s exotic and visually inventive images for the Smirnoff vodka advertising campaign in the early 1960s helped popularize that previously (almost) unknown spirit in the US; his photo of actress Sue Lyon in heart-shaped sunglasses for the poster of Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Lolita has become one of the most iconic film images of all time, possibly more memorable than the film itself; his lesser-known, but absolutely splendid documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival Jazz on a Summer’s Day has been called one of the great American cult classics; and even a little quickie moneymaking project from the 1970s—The Pill Book, a home version of the Physician’s Desk Reference—became an international bestseller, selling over 17 million copies. Stern helped pioneer the Mad Man-era change in American advertising from staid, plain-spoken formulaic salesmanship into a sophisticated and powerful force stoking consumers’ deep psychological needs and desires.
Unfortunately, the new documentary about Stern’s life Bert Stern: The Original Mad Man, directed by Stern’s longtime romantic partner and photographic muse Shannah Laumeister, succumbs to a sort of hero worship. The end result, despite a few intriguing patches, is too self-indulgent and diffused to really capture what’s most interesting about the photographer.
The film covers Stern’s journey from mailroom boy at Look magazine, to assistant graphic designer, to advertising maven, to one of the leading and most glamorous photographers of the 1960s. It was clear to everyone Stern encountered early on that he had a knack for distilling an entire advertising campaign into a single, often visually arresting image. It was a case of having the right talent at the right time in the right place: American publishing and consumer culture had just hit the post-war boom.
But the 84-year-old Stern proves somewhat resistant to being in front of the camera. “The reason I became a photographer was so I wouldn’t have to do things like this,” he says in one of the film’s opening scenes, complaining several times throughout about becoming the subject examined through the lens, about having his personal and professional lives meld. Despite his protestations, Laumeister persists, and at one point even films him cooking expensive-looking steaks on the grill in his backyard.
Stern as a photographer is interesting, outrageously successful, inventive—but is he an artist? The crucial question is far more complex and unsettling than the film lets on. “I get obsessed about things I’m looking at,” he says at one point, referring implicitly to the women in his photographs. “I want them and then I put them in the camera, and they’re mine.” Is this the artistic impulse? Or the consumer’s? Can they ever be one and the same? The film seldom considers. Most of the interview subjects rhapsodize about Stern’s gifts—we even hear from Stern’s current corporate clients, the fashion houses, designers and advertising firms he currently works with. Why? Their worshipful PR blather about his “iconic, game-changing” work is better understood without their presence.
The documentary isn’t as forceful, purposeful and sophisticated as what most viewers have become accustomed to in feature-length documentaries screened at theaters. Still, Stern’s reminisces about working with Monroe—personal, insightful, self-examining—make for fascinating viewing, as does his even more self-torturing take on his decision to photograph actress Lindsay Lohan in a mock-up of Monroe’s last sitting: The photos “infringed on another’s soul,” he says. But like most of the film’s take on things, it’s couched in terms of success: The Lohan photographs got people talking, and the magazine’s website crashed because so many people wanted to see the photos.
The mea culpa is harsh and self-critical, but it’s also primarily a concern about diluting the magic of the original photos. As Stern’s photographs drift past, so self-evidently iconic, forceful, simple, magical, even beautiful, you wonder how a documentary about them could turn out to be such an unaesthetic product.
Bert Stern: The Original Mad Man plays at Landmark Art Cinema through Friday.