Best known for the intimate shots of Marilyn Monroe photographed for Vogue magazine, Stern was one of the more iconic of the notable photographers of the mid-20th century.
He gained recognition for his candid shots of women throughout the 1960s, and photographed well-known stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot. One of these portraits was of the then 13-year-old actress Sue Lyon in heart-shaped red sunglasses – the shot that later became the poster image for Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film Lolita (1962).
Stern was a strong influence in revolutionizing Madison Avenue and the world of 1960s advertising, with a reputation for transforming commercial photography into conceptual art. With the use of clear, uncluttered and arresting images, Stern, alongside contemporaries like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, reinvented the vocabulary of glossy magazines (which had hitherto regarded pictures mainly as a means of illustrating advertising copy).
His first assignment, for Smirnoff vodka in 1955, for example, featured a simple close-up of a martini glass in the heat of the Egyptian desert with the Great Pyramid at Giza shimmering in the background. The photograph was said to be the most influential break with traditional advertising photography of its era.
Yet it was the Monroe series, shot in the summer of 1962, which changed his career. During the shoot, which lasted over three days, he was able to capture the actress in a playful mood, yet despite their air of carefree humour at the time, the star was found dead at her home several weeks later.
At Monroe’s request, Stern had sent her the contact sheets and transparencies of the first day’s shots for her approval; she returned them to him with X marks and hairpin scratches on the images she disliked.
Twenty years after her death, he published these, alongside other images from the three days, in a book entitled The Last Sitting.