Phil Stern has photographed movie stars, jazz greats, John Kennedy's presidential inauguration and World War II combat missions in a career spanning about seven decades, but he's never opened his own gallery -- until now.
The Phil Stern Gallery opens its doors tomorrow in a small space downtown next door to Cole's, one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles, showcasing a collection of photographs surrounding the 1961 Kennedy inaugural.
In addition to photos of the dashing young president and the Kennedy clan, the display includes shots of famed musicians and Hollywood stars who attended a gala celebration thrown by JFK and Frank Sinatra as a way of setting the scene for what would become known as ``Camelot.''
Stern, now 92, said he got the pictures because Sinatra took him under his wing and dubbed Stern his personal photographer.
Stern has been sporadically selling prints of his photographs for years out of his modest Hollywood home. But only the most persistent usually succeeded, and one of those was Madonna, who showed up at his doorstep to buy a photo of Marilyn Monroe.
Mostly, collectors purchased their original Stern photos -- for upwards of thousands of dollars apiece -- from Fahey/Klein, an upscale gallery on La Brea Avenue just south of Beverly Boulevard.
Stern's self-named space draws on his newly archived collections. After decades of attempts, he's getting a handle on archiving his thousands of egatives with the help of Donna Lethal, a young archivist and author, who's working alongside Marc Baker, the new gallery's curator.
During a recent visit to the downtown space, where Lethal and Baker were working hard to get it ready for the opening, Stern was asked why open a allery now?
He thought for a moment, then said the decision was the result of long conversations with his son, Peter.
``This is about my legacy,'' he said.
When told that many admirers of his work think he is a great artist on the camera, he replied, ``Matisse I ain't.''
Stern, who first picked up a camera as a teenager and started snapping pictures for the old Brooklyn Eagle, doesn't believe any photographers, ncluding himself, can ever really be called an artist ``like say Rembrandt.''
``In my mind, a photographer is like a carpenter. He can make a beautiful cabinet and you can exclaim `it's a work of art,' but it's never oing to be a Rembrandt,'' Stern said.
Yet when Life magazine did an exhibit of the best of its photographs, the lead photo was not a Margaret Bourke-White or an Alfred Eisenstaedt. It was Stern's portrait of a tired couple from Oklahoma, trying to cross the border into California in 1939 in their battered Ford truck -- a photo that became synonymous with the Great Depression.
Stern's political and spiritual essence was molded by the New Deal and the Depression and, as befits his time, he was a political lefty.
He had a longtime feisty relationship with John Wayne, with dynamics based on their political differences. Wayne called Stern a Bolshevik, and Stern alled him a Neanderthal.
Stern, always a prankster, was in the old Soviet Union when he hunted up a stamp with the biggest picture of Vladimir Lenin he could find, stuck it on a postcard and sent it to his Hollywood pal.
During World War II, Stern served in the 1st Ranger Battalion, an elite special operations unit of the U.S. Army nicknamed ``Darby's Rangers.'' Of the original 1,500 rangers, only 199, including Stern, survived.
While wearing a soldier's uniform and collecting a Purple Heart, he also acted as the unit's official photographer. It was Stern who took many of the reat combat photos of the North African campaigns of WWII, and his photos first appeared in Stars and Stripes.
Stern, who nearly lost his life from his battlefield wounds, ended up in Hollywood after the war when he was asked to play himself in a feature film bout the Darby's Rangers.
Stern, who gained a reputation for making idols out of the ordinary soldier on the battlefield, also proved adept at catching the human side of any Hollywood greats in assignments for Life magazine.
Stern became famous for his photos of stars, including James Dean, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Wayne and Monroe, including a non-glamorous ortrait of the blonde bombshell appearing vulnerable and sad.
Along the way, Stern photographed most of the great jazz musicians, shooting all the covers for Pablo Records, a label owned by jazz impresario orman Granz.