Bert Stern, a highly regarded fashion and advertising photographer whose work graced the glossy pages of the Mad Men era, died on Wednesday. He was 83. Perhaps most famous for “The Last Sitting,” his Vogue pictorial of Marilyn Monroe taken just six weeks before her death, Stern’s breathtaking documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), represented a new approach to filming musical performances and helped to inspire the iconic concert documentaries of the 1960s such as Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) and D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1967).
Born in Brooklyn in 1929, Stern got his start in the mailroom at Look magazine, where he became the protégé of art director Hershel Bramson, who later gave him his first job as a commercial photographer. Stern became known for bold and beautiful images that captured the zeitgeist of the late 1950s with its Sinatra-inspired swagger. Some of his most famous work he produced for Smirnoff Vodka, including an image featuring a lone martini glass against the towering backdrop of the Pyramid of Giza. He especially loved to photograph women, and during his career he captured Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Twiggy, and, of course, Marilyn Monroe.
Stern took thousands of photographs of Monroe over a three-day shoot at the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles in 1962. Of his time with Monroe, Stern said that: "It was a one time in a lifetime experience to have Marilyn Monroe in a hotel room, even though it was turned into a studio where I could do anything I wanted." Monroe died of an apparent barbiturate overdose just six weeks later.
In 1958, Stern brought his experience as a fashion photographer and his ability to capture ephemeral beauty to the filming of the Newport Jazz Festival. Musical director of the festival George Avakian gave Stern creative control over the arrangement of the stage and he bathed it in a warm neon glow. Between artfully lit performances by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Anita O’Day, Stern and his co-director Aram Avakian stitch in scenes of the Americas Cup on the Narragansett Bay and a Dixieland band riding around historic Newport in a Jeep.
The viewer experiences the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival not as a concert, with a camera fixed on the stage, but as a fleeting moment in time. With some of the finest Jazz musicians ever performing, it is an important historical moment. Jazz on a Summer’s Day presents a beautiful summertime experience, taking the viewer into the smiling crowd and lingering on scenes of boats cutting through the water. D.A. Pennebaker and Michael Wadleigh would go on to employ a similar style when they captured the sights and sounds of the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, two of the most famous concerts of the late 1960s. If you haven’t seen Jazz on a Summer’s Day do yourself a favor and watch it. I can think of no better film for a hot July afternoon.