Louis Armstrong, 1957
On Wednesday 16 June at 19.00, la Fondazione FORMA per la Fotografia, will inaugurate the exhibition On the Scene by Phil Stern.
Revered in the world of photography and a master of black and white reportage, throughout his long career as a natural born photo-reporter (he will be 90 this year), Phil Stern has immortalised countless stars of the cinema and show-business world.
Being a personal friend of James Dean, his photographs are among the most significant images of that great actor who passed away so prematurely. Likewise, he shot what is perhaps one of the most intense portraits of Marilyn Monroe as well as countless on-set images. There are moreover, photos which carry his signature of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and other great jazz musicians, as well as incredible sequences of Frank Sinatra.
Phil Stern is much more than a photographer who happened to be “in the right place at the right time”. His style is unmistakable, a mixture of level-headed irony, skilful formal composition and quickness of the eye. What distinguishes his irreplaceable photographs is that contradictory mixture of irony and detachment, the admiration and empathy that Stern feels and expresses for the subjects he photographs.
His Hollywood (the Hollywood of the golden age of great producers and stars who imposed their style and smile on the entire world) is cheerful and carefree, unusual and bizarre, glossy and perfect yet, suddenly, also fragile, sweet and disarming.
In Phil Stern's photographs, presented at Forma in the artist's first Italian solo exhibition, we can savour the feeling of those years and those great stars.
If, on the one hand, the author brings us “behind the scene” demystifying and even desecrating his subjects, on the other hand he too succumbs to the enchantment of the industry, its skilfully created models, the spotlight always on the set – even when the lights are off.
Phil Stern was born into a Russian Jewish family that had emigrated to the United States, he grew up in New York, in the Bronx. In 1939, after working as a studio apprentice in a photography laboratory, he began to work freelance for the Friday: officially, this is how his career began. He worked for Life, Collier’s and Look. Then he began to work in the studios of Los Angeles. He followed Orson Welles when he was working on Citizen Kane.
Meanwhile, the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, and Phil left for the front. After a short period in London, spent photographing officers (an activity that bored him to tears), Phil volunteered to join the Darby’s Rangers and left for North Africa.
He was seriously wounded in Tunisia, but when he recovered he returned to the front, this time as a war correspondent for the armed forces magazine Stars and Stripes. He covered the allies' landing in Sicily, but shortly afterwards he returned home because of injury. The U.S. Government, seeking heroes, honoured him with a “purple heart” medal: Phil Stern experienced a brief moment of glory.
The American film industry, in the meantime, seemed more prosperous than ever and Phil, who always enjoyed being in the middle of such frenzy, decided to move to Hollywood permanently; it was here that he made his famous portraits of the great celebrities of the age, captured as they worked on set, behind the scenes and in rare intimate moments, which Stern was able to capture and convey with that freshness and irony that was to become his trademark. In 1945 he married Rosie with whom he had four children.
The rest belongs to the history of photography and the great masters of the age.
The exhibition is organized in collaboration with CPi, Creative Photographers Inc.