An intimate look into the private life and mind of the formidable photographer.
Written By Christine Whitney
Bert Stern’s success began with a martini. As the story goes, in 1955, the 24-year-old photographer was commissioned to shoot a vodka campaign for Smirnoff. The resulting image, a seductive shot of a martini glass juxtaposed with an Egyptian pyramid, launched a creative revolution in advertising as well as Stern’s career, which spanned more than 50 years. The photographer, who died in 2013, is remembered for the definitive images from his extensive archive, which includes editorials for Life, Glamour, Vogue, and more. His subjects included luminaries like painters De Kooning, Marcel Duchamp, and Mark Rothko to the model Twiggy and the starry likes of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor (captured in full Cleopatra regalia). Photos of the latter three are some of the most iconic in the national canon—particularly his “Last Sitting” series of Monroe, shot for Vogue over a three-day period just weeks before her untimely death in 1962.
Shannah Laumeister—the photographer’s model, lover, and, later, wife—first caught the eye of the much-older Stern in New York when she was 13, and he invited her to his studio for a session. Although her first shoot with Stern was not a success (“I was so nervous...he never even called to show me the pictures,” Laumeister says), they worked together again, when, as a 17-year-old, she telephoned the photographer and told him, “I want you to take my picture like Marilyn Monroe.” Thus followed decades of fruitful, often provocative collaborations—and eventually an epic romance. The two eloped to Las Vegas when Laumeister was 40, keeping the marriage a secret even after she released a divisive documentary on Stern’s life in 2011. “He didn’t allow anyone to shoot him, but I think he enjoyed it with me because it was another way of being close,” Laumeister says. “Our relationship wasn’t known to everyone, and I felt like I needed to capture it because otherwise it would just be in my head. He fascinated me to no end.” Now, in concert with The Violet Files’ Pat McGrath and Kim Kardashian collaboration—which was inspired by Stern’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra—Laumeister shares behind-the-lens insights and memories of an artist as influential as his subjects.
Bert Stern’s widow, Shannah Laumeister, opens up about the famed photographer’s obsessions, loves, and fierce, literal defense of his work.
On Stern’s relationship with his ART...
He couldn’t distinguish between his life and his work. He fell in love with everything he photographed. If he loved a woman, and he wanted to make love to her, taking a photograph was an even more special way of having her.
On protecting his PHOTOGRAPHS...
After a shoot, he used to wrap his rolls of film around his waist and his ankles. He’d come home with it strapped to his body. He kept his archives at his apartment and his house in Sag Harbor. He wouldn’t give anybody his keys, not even me until after we got married, and he wouldn’t let me bring anybody over to the house with the archives. He never let anyone hold his prints. In 60 seconds he’d say, “that’s enough,” and he’d pull them out of your hand. It’s crazy that he gave those pictures [from the last sitting] to Marilyn, but that was an exception. He was madly in love with her.
On Elizabeth TAYLOR...
The photo of her as Cleopatra, in the makeup and black dress, is the quintessential picture of her. I like her, but I’ve never seen a picture that really blew my mind like that one.
On Marilyn MONROE...
Everyone is obsessed with the Marilyns. They really enter another dimension. He had a very spiritual relationship with his mother, and when he got close with women there was usually a big spiritual element. I think for the Marilyn pictures he was able to access that.
If he LOVED a woman, and he wanted to make LOVE to her, taking a photograph was an even more
SPECIAL way of having her.
On Kate MOSS...
Bert did a lot of photos of Kate Moss, but there’s one black-and-white print where it feels like I’m really seeing who she is in a pure and unguarded way. It has no pretense; it’s like looking into her soul, very up close. It doesn’t look like she’s wearing any makeup. She has short hair. She’s partially nude, but she’s like a tomboy. It feels like I’m with her, like we’re together in a room.
On Stern’s LEGACY...
I think his greatest contribution will be his archives, which are so massive. No one has seen them yet. But I also think it’s the way he understood that the beauty of the art was in its raw form. If Marilyn had a scar, or Liz Taylor had a scar, the scar was beautiful because it was part of what made them unique. He believed his best pictures happened when there was a mistake.
See Pat McGrath’s genius transformation of Kim Kardashian West in the first installment of her series for The Violet Files.