My Bert Stern Experience

I have so many stories about my life on the Fashion Battle Field, I don’t know which one to share first.

Should I do my Kim Alexis story, Bert Stern story, Andie MacDowell story, Janice Dickinson story or… ???

Ok here goes “She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not…”

"The last sitting" with Marilyn Monroe © Bert Stern

Well the flower petals have chosen the Bert Stern story. You probably all know who Bert Stern is. If not, he did the last sitting with Marilyn Monroe and has shot for everyone from Bazaar to Vogue and everything else that is considered credible.

Several years ago when I was living in Mid Town Manhattan on East 58th Street and only in New York for about 6 months, I got a call from an Art Director named Michael Aprigliano who I had shown my portfolio to several weeks before. It was quite late in the evening and his voice sounded quite frenzied and panicky. I said “What’s wrong Michael?” He asked if he could come and see me with a colleague of his from the Ad Agency and said that he had an urgent problem to solve. It was already 10:00 PM and I was sufficiently curious to comply and said “Sure, no problem, come on over…”

Michael arrived at my place around 10:30 PM with his female associate and sat down and spurted out, “I have a serious problem and we are hoping that you can help us out…” I sat and listened. The next thing that came out of his mouth was a question. “Ben, have a look at this image and tell me honestly what you think of it.” He went in to his attaché case and pulled out several Medium Format slides and selected one for me to have a look at. I asked him to wait a moment and brought out a small light box to have a closer look. On the slide was a very pretty model standing against a gray back drop with a tiny squiggle of light that kind of looked like a light worm just slightly off center from where she was standing. I looked closely at the image and felt rather embarrassed and didn’t quite know what to say.  I looked at Michael and asked, “what do you want want, a diplomatic answer or my personal opinion?” He looked at me for a moment and said, “please, tell me what you think of this?”

I starred at the image for what seemed like a very long time and said, “Michael, I don’t really know how to say this, but, ah, well, ah, it kind of looks like a first year student in photography school attempting to shoot a fashion story…” Michael desperately looks at his colleague, glances at me, looks at her and starts to speak really quickly with her almost forgetting that I am in their presence.

“What are we going to do, we have already shot three days and it is costing us a fortune, what should we do?”  She looked at him and said with a very firm voice, “We have to pull the plug!”  Michael with a grave look on his face  says , “Ben, how quickly could you be available to shoot for us?”  But before I could answer, they commence a flurry of back and forth dialogue at 100 kilometers a second and finally blurts out, “We Can’t Continue with Bert!”

The room fell in to total silence. You could hear a feather drop. I felt sick to my stomach and could hardly believe my ears and responded, “Bert Reynolds…” just to lighten things up and the first Bert that came to mind and honestly not really wanting to believe the Bert he was referring to. I could not even imagine that the Bert that they were referring to could be the Bert I knew as a celebrity.

Michael looked me straight in the eyes and said, “No Ben, not Bert Reynolds… Bert Stern.” I screamed out “No way Michael, there is no way I am not doing a re-shoot for Bert Stern, Are you crazy??? he said “You have to… Please!” I said “Bert Stern is one of the greats, this can’t be happening!”

Michael said, “Look Ben, we want exactly what you showed us in your portfolio that you did for “New York Fashion District News”. That is the atmosphere we need for this shoot. I asked, “What is the shoot?”  Michael “It is one of our biggest clients Dayton Hudson’s and it is the Dayton Hudson Christmas Book.”  You will be shooting with Elle MacPherson, Andie MacDowell, etc… etc… etc… It is a seven day shoot and you need to start tomorrow.

I looked at him and took a deep breath and said “Okay on one condition…” he said what’s that?  “That I can get my assistant John Naschinski in LA to fly in to assist me.”  He said, you got it.  I picked up the phone, called John and got him on a flight from LA that evening for our shoot the next morning. We shot at the Broadway Studios at 19th and Broadway. I had to stay up till four in the morning preparing for the next day discussing the shoot with Michael.

Everything was prepared for the shoot except the painted backdrops which we ordered first thing in the morning for that day and commenced hair and make-up and all the other stuff that one does for a fashion shoot.

The morning was moving along quite smoothly until… Are you ready for the punch line?

"The last sitting" with Marilyn Monroe © Bert Stern

Next door, there was another shoot happening. I think it was for New York Times Fashion Magazine. I went in to the hall way and looked on the blackboard to see who was shooting that day. My jaw hit the floor! It was Bert Stern shooting for them and to add to that it was Bert Stern’s Birthday, because on the blackboard it said “Happy Birthday Bert.” I guess he was on second option and was canceled the evening before, opening him up  for New York Times.

A couple hours later, I see a guy walk in to my studio. I look at him and know his face right away. I think to myself, “Oh shit, what am I going to say?” He speaks to someone in the studio who points at me and Bert turns towards me and approaches me quickly. He puts out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Bert Stern.” I stutter out, “Bert… Bert, I am really sorry I had nothing to do with this, I am so sorry really I am…” I could see in his eyes that he knew how uncomfortable I was feeling and said “Don’t worry kid, we all have our bad days and anyways it’s my Birthday!”

I looked at him, took his hand, shook it and said “Happy Birthday Bert, have a Happy Birthday.” I think I got a piece of cake during the day. The shoot went really well and the catalogue is still in the archives of Target Stores who purchased Dayton Hudson’s. I am trying to get a copy from their archives department, which has been a logistical nightmare. The good news is that it has been archived.

So, is there a lesson to be learned from this? I think so. We all have good and bad days. Learn to turn the page. Have dignity and try to remain humble. One more thing. Bert was a true Gentleman and showed no malice towards me and that in its own right was a valuable lesson for me.

Well there you have it. Just one of my many stories from the Fashion Battle Field.

About Benjamin Kanarek
Fashion and Beauty Photographer. Some of the magazines I have shot for include: VOGUE (China, Portugal, Brazil, Italia, Paris and South America & Mexico editions), RG VOGUE Brazil, Harper’s BAZAAR (China, en Español & Latin America, Hong Kong, Italy editions), L’Officiel Paris, ELLE (Spain, Portugal and Greece editions), Madame Figaro (France), Cosmopolitan (France and Italy editions), Glamour (France), Votre Beauté, Jardin des Modes, Dépêche Mode, New York Daily News, Fashion District News, New York Times Magazine, W (British edition), WWD, Fashion Magazine (Canada), Flare (Canada), Oyster, Tank, WestEast…