Stern, Phil “Snapdragon”

Philip “Snapdragon” Stern was an American photographer noted for his iconic portraits of Hollywood stars, as well as his war photography while serving as a U.S. Army Ranger in the “Darby’s Rangers” unit in the North African and Italian campaigns during World War II.

Phil Stern in Italy

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Stern was born in Philadelphia on September 3, 1919. His family moved to New York City while he was still an infant.

In 1937, he works days as apprentice In New York City photo studio and darkroom and nights as photographer for the “Police Gazette.”

Two years later, Phil is a Staff photographer at “Friday” magazine covering east coast labor and other social Issues.

In 1941, he is sent to Los Angeles to work at Friday’s west coast bureau. Photographing labor stories again but with Cinema subjects added to the mix. “Friday” soon went bankrupt. Phil remains as freelance photographer for New York newspapers, LIFE , LOOK, Colliers, and other magazines.

1942, Phil  becomes assigned by the US Army to a photographic unit in London, England. He volunteers for “Darby’s Rangers” a much heralded fighting unit as a combat photographer; nickname “66 Snapdragon”. He is wounded in North Africa and assigned, after recuperation, to cover the invasion of Sicily/Italy.

Army Ranger in Sicily, 1943

Phil Stern with camera

1944, he is assigned by “LIFE” along with John Hersey to produce a photo essay on the homecoming of the “Darby’s Rangers”. In Hollywood, he appears with film personalities promoting war bonds.

Phil was friends with Robert Capa, who asked him several times to join Magnum but he kept saying “No! because every photographer that joins ends up getting killed!”

1945, he realizes more photo essays for “LIFE” on post war social rehabilitation and the start of serious Hollywood film coverage.  He finishes the war as Staff Sergeant.

Troops advancing through the streets of Comiso, Sicily, 1943.

Phil Stern, Italy, 1943.


Settling in Los Angeles after the war, Stern was staff photographer for LOOK magazine. He was present on numerous film productions as still photographer, and in that capacity took photographs of a huge cross-section of the film community. Stern’s images of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean have become widely recognized icons.

From 1946 through the 80’s he is a freelance photographer contributing to many magazines…. serving as a “special” still cameraman on numerous film features including “West Side Story”, “Judgment at Nuremburg”, “Guys and Dolls”, …

In 1961 he was the official photographer for Kennedy’s presidential inaugural gala.

In 2014, Phil was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame as its 348th member. He was bestowed this rare honor “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”.

As a combat photographer, he took thousands of pictures during Ranger training at Corker Hill and in action from North Africa to Italy. At the Battle of El Guettar Stern was severely wounded in action; his right arm incapacitated and neck hit by shell fragments. The Army field hospital in Morocco performed surgery and fixed this right arm. After being awarded the Purple Heart, Stern was determined to get back with his unit. In the summer of 1943 he joined “Stars and Stripes” and accompanied the Rangers during the first wave of the Invasion of Sicily. He was one of the very few photographers to capture the historical importance of Sicily being liberated by the allied European forces.

Phil Stern in his Hollywood studio with a cutout of his photograph of James Dean on March 19, 1989

He died at the age of 95 in Los Angeles of emphysema and congestive heart failure, December 13, 2014.

His legacy is preserved :



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