Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Bert Stern Original Madman

New York photographer Bert Stern would probably qualify for legendary status if he wasn’t so reluctant to appear on the non-business end of a camera lens – he’s the man who kickstarted the Madison Avenue style of cool and enigmatic advertising with the exotic images he shot to promote Smirnoff vodka and he went on to capture images of every movie star and supermodel going that I’m really struggling not to describe by using the word “iconic”. His most famous works, and certainly the most wrangled over in terms of ownership, are the pictures he took of Marilyn Monroe in a Los Angeles hotel in various states of undress only weeks before she died, which were published much later in the book “The Last Sitting” – these images are all the proof anyone might need as to Stern’s natural affinity with, and singleminded fascination for, beautiful and glamorous women.

Stern might not enjoy being photographed himself but he’s sure not averse to opening up and talking frankly about his life, his work and his obsessions in the new documentary Bert Stern: Original Madman, directed by his current partner Shannah Laumeister. Work and women were everything to Stern during the 50s and 60s, with predictably calamitous effects on his marriages and eventually his health, as he found himself more and more reliant on amphetamines to keep himself awake and alert. After a period of hitting rock bottom and withdrawing he did however make a triumphant comeback, the nature of which is both delightfully unexpected and utterly befitting. There are candid interviews with his former wives and children, and testaments to his creative genius from colleagues and photographic subjects. Stern as an older man comes across as mild-mannered and self-aware, but still sharp enough to appreciate the value of his work and to able to negotiate the right price for it. He also sometimes displays a weary restlessness, as though he’d like to just walk away from the mountains of boxes containing prints that represent his life’s achievement. The documentary is put together with no shortage of style and flash and at times feels a little like an expensive advertisement itself but Stern’s guarded honesty grounds it more than adequately. Recommended, particularly for anyone interested in portrait photography – there are a lot of good technical tips here in amongst the biographical highs and traumas.

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