Remembering Bert Stern, commercial and celebrity photographer

I just read about the death, two days ago, of Bert Stern (3 October 1929 – 26 June 2013), the commercial and celebrity photographer who made his name in the 1960s as being one of a group of photographers who revolutionised commercial photography from being merely illustrative to being a valid form of conceptual art.

stern_smirnoffOf his commercial images, a shot of a martini glass with an inverted image of the Pyramid of Giza showing through the glass, done for a Smirnoff advert, remains one of his most enduring commercial images.

A self-taught photographer, Stern’s style was generally clear and uncluttered. His best-known work was probably his 3-day shoot (for Vogue Magazine) with Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death in 1962. The shoot resulted in some 2500 images, including some of the most enduring images of the iconic actress. (Years later, he did a similar session with Lindsay Lohan, trying to replicate the success of his Marilyn images, but these were widely criticised as being exploitative and tawdry.)

He also photographed many other famous models and actresses from the 1960s onwards, another of his most recognisable images being an evocative portrait of 13-year old actress Sue Lyon posing with a red lollipop and heart-shaped sunglasses – this became the poster-image for Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’.


Stern’s work is featured in the International Museum of Photography, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Half a ton, and counting…

Yesterday the Sciencelens blog reached a bit of a personal milestone – 500 followers!

After feeling quite chuffed with myself for a bit, I started thinking about what it means, and I guess it’s really one of those numbers that’s neither here nor there. A year ago, when 100 followers still seemed a distant target for me, I saw another blogger commenting about reaching the 400 follower mark, and thought it was amazing. On the other hands, many blogs I read regularly count many thousands of people among their signed-up followers.

So yes, its many, but at the same time not that much.

There's always something worthwhile photographing or writing about.
There’s always something worthwhile photographing or writing about.

For one thing, reaching this landmark is definitely enough to inspire me to keep going, to keep looking for amusing topics to write about, striking things to photograph, and wacky events to celebrate.

So, to use a popular phrase of the Hash House Harriers (one of my favourite global running institutions):

An uplifting tour through earthquake-ravaged Christchurch

While photographing the annual conference of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) in Christchurch recently, I had the privilege of going on a tour through the earthquake-ravaged city. It has been more than 2 years since a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011, killing 185 people, and fundamentally changing the lives of many, many more.

The funky, innovative dance-o-mat - a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine - simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be. (© All Rights Reserved)
The funky, innovative dance-o-mat – a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine – simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The face of the city has changed completely – many areas that used to house shops, restaurants and more, are now flat, empty land, used mostly as car-parks. Even residents who knew their city by heart, get lost among the open spaces that have appeared in the inner city where well-known landmarks used to be. Amongst these ugly, industrial-looking spaces, however, the most amazingly innovative use of urban space is emerging – dance floors with a twist, temporary performance spaces, mini-golf courses made from rubble, and much more. For more info on the great initiatives taking place throughout Christchurch, visit the Gap Filler website.

One of the holes of the earthquake rubble mini golf course, spread out throughout the devastated Christchurch inner city. (© All Rights Reserved)
One of the holes of the earthquake-rubble-mini-golf course, spread out throughout the open spaces in Christchurch’s inner city.
(© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion - a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site. (© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion – a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While a tour through the city is a harrowing experience, it is also an uplifting one, testimony to the human spirit and the commitment of a population to making the most of its circumstances. The city has a long way to go to regain its former glory, but given the tenacity and positive spirit of its residents, I have no doubt it will emerge an even greater city than before.

A special experience indeed!

Scaling the Varsity Heights

Varsity Heights

This road sign, part of my daily jogging route, catches my eye every time I run past.

You have to wonder about the subliminal message it conveys – is tertiary education a dead-end street, or is a life in academia so fascinating and satisfying that you would never want to leave? In the case of New Zealand, tertiary education is clearly not considered a dead-end street – according to the publication ‘Profile and Trends 2011: New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Sector’, more than 450 000 students were enrolled in formal study programmes in 2011. The number of young people taking on higher-level tertiary qualifications is also increasing, as is the number of international students enrolling in tertiary education in New Zealand.

Given that the current population of New Zealand is just under 4.5 million, the above numbers suggest that about 10% of the population is currently enrolled in tertiary studies. That’s a pretty impressive statistic. Not surprisingly, then, that most ranking systems place the country in the top ten in the world in terms of educational performance, along with other high-performing countries like Finland, Denmark, Australia, Cuba, Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and Canada.

Varsity Heights, indeed. And surely no dead-end street!

Movember sign-off

Well can you believe it – November, or Movember as we prefer to call it, is over and done with. So many ideas, so many plans, and before you know it December is knocking on the door.

The Sciencelens mo - grey and proud!
The Sciencelens mo – grey and proud!

I planned much more regular updates, and at one stage even contemplated creating a time-lapse video condensing my month’s mo-growing into a few amusing seconds. Well, suffice to say none of that happened, but at least I did manage keep the mo up and running despite some corporate gigs and the like. Guess it helps that high-profile celebs like the All Blacks also supported the cause – it really does help to raise the profile of this very worthy cause.

Thanks for the support.  Hopefully next year we’ll pull out all the stops (or is that stubbles?)!

Quick Movember update

Following up on my earlier Movember post, herewith a quick progress report.

One week in, taken on the 7th of Movember…  OK, no growth to write home about (yet), but at least some salt and pepper specks starting to show.

Might have to start rubbing horse-poo on my face to boost the growth! 🙂

You can visit my Mo Space page here.

Transit of Venus – Italian style

As mentioned earlier, we had an overcast, rainy, blustery day here in New Zealand, with the sun hidden behind thick clouds the entire day.  As a result the Transit of Venus sadly passed by without a single sighting.

Well, what can you do? So we decided to opt for the next best thing, and created our own version of the event…

The Transit of Venus – Italian style.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Introduction to Sciencelens

Sciencelens Ltd is a newly established photographic company based in Palmerston North, New Zealand.  The focus of Sciencelens is exclusively on photography in the domains of science, industry and technology.

Gerry le Roux, owner and main photographer of the company, has been operating as a science photographer for the past five years.

Before pursuing photography on a professional basis, Gerry worked as a scientist and researcher in the ICT domain at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a leading R&D institution in southern Africa. Working closely with scientists from a wide range of disciplines including bioscience, materials technology, ICT, environmental science, defence, and building & transport technology, led to an understanding and appreciation for the visual side of science.

When deciding to trade his science career for a career in photography, photographing scientists and science phenomena was therefore a logical focus domain.

Gerry is passionate about the use of photography as a visual aid in communicating science, and through Sciencelens he hopes to make a meaningful contribution in this field. This involves working closely with scientists and researchers as well as technical writers and communication specialists.

The photography done through Sciencelens broadly encompasses three fields, namely:

  • technical photography of science experiments, laboratory tools and equipment, and science phenomena,
  • photographic profiling of people in science, including coverage of scientists at work and portraiture in a science environment, and
  • coverage of science and technology related events such as corporate visits, conferences, demonstrations and launches.

Technical science photography

At a technical level, the main challenge of science photography is to accurately capture the scientific subject matter in a striking and visually arresting way without ‘misleading’ the viewer.

Creating a good science photograph comes back to the basics of good photography in general – composition, lighting and contrast management. At times the photography of scientific subject matter can be burdened by excessive use of special effects such as the use of coloured strobes to create a blue or green glow emanating from behind the subject.  While subtle use of lighting remain one of the most effective and important ‘tools’ in photography, the trend has moved towards accuracy and correctness instead of special effects, with the focus rather being placed on how the subject can be represented in a striking, novel way using different angles, focal lengths and good composition.

Photographing experiments and science phenomena present wonderful opportunities to the science photographer to enhance the impact of his subject through good composition and visual design, and it is in this context that photography can become an invaluable science communication tool.

Photographic profiling of people in science

Profiling scientists at work is an area of photography that Gerry is particularly fond of, and therefore represents a large component of the Sciencelens offering. Coming to grips with the technicalities of the scientist or researcher’s work and figuring out how to capture this visually can be quite complex. Add to this the human factor – staging the scientist in the image to form part of the composition, while at the same time making him or her feel at ease in front of the camera, and you have a photographic challenge that is tough, but at the same time very rewarding.

In terms of people profiling shoots, Sciencelens prides itself in the quality of its comprehensive portfolio, having created images for numerous client newsletters and reports.

Covering science and technology events

The third offering from Sciencelens, namely the photographic coverage of science and technology events, differs from the first two in the sense that it is less directly scientific, but it is still a critical link in the visual science communication chain.

While the focus in this case falls on the discipline of events photography, having a scientific background still helps in identifying key photographic moments.  And being able to understand and enjoy the presentation of the speaker being photographed, is definitely an added bonus for the photographer!

Years of covering launches, conferences and other events have helped Gerry develop the intuition to identify and photograph key moments, and to capture the character of the speaker.  Technically, a key challenge in event photography lies in being able to use lighting and composition to capture not only the action of the speaker, but also the context that supports and defines the action.  Another important factor is that the photographer is seldom in control of the environment (indoor/outdoor, size of the venue, position of the speaker, etc), and as such has to be flexible enough to make the most of any situation.