Snapdragon is a revelation, a unique telling of a unique man’s early life. It is told in large part by Phil Stern, the young man himself, but with all the supporting detail and the rest of the story filled in by his biographer Liesl Bradner.
Phil Stern led a very adventurous life. By age 21 he was already a Life magazine photographer shooting pictures of Hollywood stars. But when WW2 began he volunteered for the army and became a member of Darby’s Rangers, now famed for their exploits in Africa and Sicily but then a newly formed and untested combat unit. Because he joined them as a serviceman and not as a correspondent he had the unique opportunity to photograph the troops and the fighting as an insider in the thick of it. They saw him as one of them too and named him Snapdragon. For the next two years Phil was there for it all and he pictured it in detail. Then in 1943 he was wounded a second time and sent back stateside. Once back he wrote of the life he had lived and the men he had known. His stories, told with his memories fresh and a fine photographer’s eye for detail are as absorbing and present as if what he was writing about had happened earlier in the day.
Then he put the stories away and went on for a long and distinguished career as a Hollywood photographer, becoming friends with Frank Sinatra and James Dean, making iconic pictures of Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy’s and a thousand others. He lived long enough to see his pictures reproduced everywhere and his work become celebrated by a whole new generation of photographers who appreciated his direct and honest approach to what was in front of him.
In 2014, the last year of his life, Phil sat down with a friend, Liesl Bradner to talk about writing his memories of the wartime years, hoping to correct some things he thought history had gotten wrong. She reminded him that he had already written about those years long ago in that unfinished memoir and they began work together on what would become this book. Phil didn’t live to see the end of the work but his voice is clear and present all the way through. Bradner lets him speak by using all of his original writing and only interjecting to weave the bigger picture around his stories for context.
So what we have here is something between a bio and an autobiography, the first part primarily written by Phil as a young man and the rest of his life, all the Hollywood years, written by Liesl Bradner. There are hundreds of photographs of course, many that you will recognize but the new treasures are the everyday life pictures he made showing the soldiers of Darby’s Rangers, his comrades and friends as they set out to be warriors and then as the battle hardened veterans they became.
This book isn’t the usual photographer’s book although it’s filled with hundreds of Phil’s pictures. It’s not a reminisce in the usual sense nor is it a photographer talking about photography although there is some of that too. The heart of Snapdragon is its fine word picture of what it’s like in the mind of someone who notices all the little things even in the middle of a battle, someone who sees pictures as well as makes them. Here’s a little taste of what Phil was seeing in North Africa in 1942.
“Right on the nose! We sight the black outline of the North African coast. Hard to believe but it’s there. Boy it’s going to be a luxury to put our feet on land again. Captain Saam is shivering a bit and don’t get me wrong, it’s not from fright. He isn’t dry yet. We can practically reach out and touch Africa now. One of the boats bangs into a rock near the beach. The men are up to their shoulders in water. Some are swimming but they make it for the sand. The lead boat flashes us a signal not to hit the beach until a clear area is located. Doesn’t take long for the all clear flash. There’s a dull crash, the crafts mouth opens and it looks just as though men and guns are just spat out onto the beach. We’re lucky Just up to the waist in water. The water is refreshing and comfortably warm. No shore fire. Jesus, those guys must be asleep. Or maybe they are waiting until we get further up the beach.” No histrionics, just a young reporters voice reporting on his situation and a photographer’s eye to give you the picture.
Snapdragon, by Liesl Bradner and Phil Stern Published by Osprey Publishing
Phil Stern was one of the most noted photographers of the 50s and 60s. His work appeared in such publications as Look, Life, and Collier’s. During World War II he served as a photographer in the much heralded fighting unit “Darby’s Rangers”. In 2014 Stern was inaugurated in the prestigious U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame for his “service as an original member of the 1st Ranger Battalion and for his lasting contribution to the photographic history of the Rangers in the European Theater during WWII”. Phil Stern passed away in 2014.
Liesl Bradner is an award-winning journalist with more than 15 years’ experience, and has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Guardian, Truthdig, Variety and WWII Magazine. In addition to Phil Stern, with whom she forged a strong bond, Bradner has interviewed nearly 100 artists, actors, screenwriters, authors, politicians, and photographers. She was part of the writing team at Truthdig that won the 2015 Maggie Award for best regularly featured web column (Book Review). Bradner lives in Los Angeles
Book signing June 9th 2 – 4PM at Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N La Brea Ave, LA, CA, 90036
Book signing July 8th 3-5 at the Italian American Museum, 644 N Main St, LA, CA, 90012
Andy Romanoff writes at Stories I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You
Andy Romanoff’s pictures are here