'Matisse I Ain't': Iconic War Photographer Phil Stern Honored at Veterans' Home

'Matisse I Ain't': Iconic War Photographer Phil Stern Honored at Veterans' Home

LOS ANGELES — On Saturday, veterans, family, friends, and some of Hollywood’s most notable figures convened in the Veterans Home in West Los Angeles to celebrate the 95th birthday of iconic war and Hollywood photographer Sergeant Phil Stern.

Coinciding with his age, Stern made a donation and approved the installation of 95 of his most famous photographs to furnish the once-barren walls of the VA home, where he also resides.

“And all these years, the wartime experience of course was the most traumatic and dramatic of my life,” Stern said to the audience that convened before him in honor of his contribution to America’s veterans with his generous donation. 

Stern toed the line between war and Hollywood. His photographs are so gritty and honest that they have been described as leaving nowhere for either subject or viewer to hide. His son Peter said that his father “looks at photography as a craft, not an art, and he likens himself more to a carpenter than an artist.” Peter noted that his father has on many occasions said, “Matisse I ain’t.”

However, that sentiment was not shared by film producer and director Brett Ratner, with whom Stern personally shares a strong, 16-year friendship. 

At one point during Ratner’s speech, he recalled to the audience how great an impact Stern’s visit to the set of one of his movies had: “Phil Stern coming to the set of my movie with a camera was like Picasso coming to paint me,” Ratner said. 

Ratner is the largest collector of Phil Stern photographs in the world, something the producer of films such as Rush Hours 1, 2, and 3, and X-Men: The Last Stand said he is “very proud of.” So much so that in 2003, Ratner co-authored the book Phil Stern: A Life’s Work, the title of which testifies to the publication’s contents. 

One of the many surprises of the afternoon included Sergeant Stern being inducted into the Ranger’s Hall of Fame as its 348th member “for his lasting contribution to the photographic history of the Rangers,” said Colonel Tom Evans, who headed the induction. 

“It’s easier to get an Oscar than to become a member of the [Rangers] Hall of Fame,” Colonel Evans pointed out, as he playfully looked at Ratner. Stern was severely wounded in 1943 during his service in WWII while photo-documenting the Battle of El Guettar as part of the Darby’s Rangers. The injury left his right arm incapacitated. Yet he was still determined to return to the battlefield and was eventually presented with a Purple Heart for his service. 

Phil’s photo documentation of the battles he was part of would capture the realities of life and war in an unprecedented way, a way that would set the tone for the future of photography. 

Actress Erin Murphy, who played the role of Young Tabitha on the hit television series Bewitched, was also present at the VA. “My dad was in WWII, and my grandpa was in WWI, so anything involving veterans, I’m there,” she told Breitbart News. 

Some of Stern’s most iconic Hollywood pieces included shots he took of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and the 1961 Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), America’s 35th president. “Our director/producer of Bewitched directed the inauguration with JFK, where Marilyn Monroe sang, so there’s that connection too,” Murphy told Breitbart News.

“I think it’s wonderful what Phil Stern has done,” said veteran Albert Restum, 89, to Breitbart News. “I think more people should be as motivated as he to do this. Because all these pictures bring back memories.”

Restum, who is a sitting member on the Veterans Association committee, said he fought at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and retired from the Air Force in 1970. His brother, the late musical performer Willie Restum, was close friends with one of Stern’s greatest photography subjects, Frank Sinatra.

When asked about how it feels to achieve all that he has, Stern frankly told Breitbart News: “I’m delighted to be able to breathe at this age.” As for some words of advice? Stern simply had this to say: “Keep breathing.”


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