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There was a lovely celebration of Phil Stern’s birthday and the unveiling of many prints he donated to the Veterans Home of California a few weeks ago. The pictures and their captions tell you that story. But before you look through them I thought I’d give you a little context about the kind of man he is…

I met Phil Stern in 1978. He walked onto the set of Steven Spielberg’s “1941” and my first thought was, “Who is that old guy?”   He was at least a generation older than the rest of us, the crew and actors but it soon became apparent that his “advanced” age notwithstanding, he was a consummate pro. Unflappable, observant, canny, funny and experienced, he just knew where to be, when to be and how to get the picture without making a fuss. So I got that he was good right away, but it took me a while longer to understand his pictures were so good precisely because he was older. Or rather that his pictures were so good because he had seen so much and made so many choices under so many conditions. He was … experienced. His pictures, magically made from the right place at the right time were the result of years watching how people gathered and acted, of knowing what they were likely to be feeling and always, always looking for the best way to show what was going on both physically and emotionally. Phil was an artist with a camera.

Now, if you ask him he will probably deny this. One of his favorite sayings is “Matisse I ain’t”. He has spent his life as a photojournalist, getting compelling pictures no matter what the conditions and he considers himself a professional, not an artist. But with all due respect, I think he’s wrong. His art is capturing moments that resonate with you for years, pictures that bring people to life and pictures that reveal humanity on both sides of the camera.

Over the years, Phil’s work was discovered by almost everyone who did a story about Hollywood, musicians or the 2nd World War. Phil kept his negatives and as the years rolled by, his pictures became essential viewpoints of the 20th century. Demand for his work grew and grew. Finally, with his family he opened a gallery. The opening night was held in a wonderful room high in a building in downtown Los Angeles. The evening was filled with friends, collectors and fans marveling at the images. The show was Phil Stern at his best. For many years, Phil had been close with Frank Sinatra, who trusted him to be discreet. When Kennedy was elected in 1968, Sinatra was asked to arrange the entertainment for the inaugural ball and Sinatra asked Phil to be the event photographer – total access. Phil went to Washington and produced hundreds of memorable images. Many were up on the walls that night. One, a large print that dominated the entrance was a picture of the presidential cavalcade making its way up Pennsylvania Avenue. The sun is shining, Kennedy is standing in the back of an open limousine, crowds are cheering. It is a beautiful and hopeful moment and doubly poignant because we know what will happen a few years down the road. I misted up and had a hard time holding back the tears.

When I saw Phil I went over to say hello and I told him that story. Phil looked at me for a minute and said “Romanoff, you’re a lot more sentimental than I am – pure Phil. Well maybe I am but he’s the guy who made the pictures … not sentimental at all but filled with captured emotions and asking us to feel ours.

So here’s Phil at 95, slowing now and finally forced to move from the little house filled to overflowing with his prints and negatives. He wasn’t old the day I met him, just experienced and knowing. Even more so now. Happy Birthday Phil.

Phil Stern’s pictures are on permanent display and can be seen by contacting the West Los Angeles Veterans Home press information office at 424-832-8219

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