A father looks back on the life and career of his eldest son, photographer Stephen Han Stickler, whose iconic images of musicians graced the covers of major magazines in the mid-’90s.
by JOHN C. STICKLER
Above photo: From left to right, Alexander Stickler, Soma Han and John Stickler, at Stephen’s memorial service, held July 5 in Los Angeles. The print on the left is a watercolor by Han intended to be Stephen’s 50th birthday present. At right is Stephen’s last creation as an artist, a Photoshop collage entitled “Free.” Photo by Gerard Shadrick.
The standing portrait of my son, Stephen Han Stickler, from the February 2008 issue of KoreAm epitomized him to a tee: formidable, sleek and in control.
Dressed in a V-neck pullover and slacks, both hands in his pockets, Stephen looks straight into the camera as he stands in a hallway flooded by natural light. Usually the person on the other side of the lens, my son appears stern-faced and imperious, a figure dressed in black.
Stephen was always in control—even when cancer took his life on June 26, four days shy of his 50th birthday.
A photographer who shot iconic album covers in the mid-’90s for the likes of Korn and Iggy Pop; photographed such groups as the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine and the musician Pink; and whose celebrity portraitures include William H. Macy, Milla Jovovich, Kate Winslet and Christian Bale, Stephen was an A-list professional who always took the celebrity around him in stride.
Whether it was racing around Ozzy Osbourne’s wooded Buckinghamshire estate on high-powered quad runners or mounting the stage at London’s Wembley Stadium in front of 80,000 people to photograph a rock group, my son knew how to take a good picture.
Stephen Han Stickler’s extensive personal work may be seen at StephenStickler.com and society6.com/stephenhan.
As his best friend of more than 20 years, Dante Ariola, said at his memorial service, held July 5 at the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Hollywood, “He was able to fit in with any group or social situation, no matter how extreme or eclectic.”
Stephen’s friends—and he had many—described him as angelic, silly, loving, and he was. With family, however, he was often remote, cool, dismissive. Stephen and I, by his choice, were not close. My wife Soma and I saw very little of him after his high school graduation in 1982. Here, I have an opportunity to hold him close one more time.
Stephen was born July 1, 1965, in Seoul, where I pioneered the advertising business, worked for the CBS radio network and met Soma, an artist. Stephen and his younger brother, Alexander, attended Sacred Heart parochial school and spent their childhood in the New Itaewon diplomatic housing compound. The kids got a head start on their education, attending daily the “Pooh Bear School”—the preschool run by Soma in our home—and were spoiled 24-7 by their halmoni.
Stephen always liked to draw; as a child, his favorites were superheroes. One picture showed a Spider-Man figure sporting a large belt with Stephen’s initials—SHS. As a teen, he turned to painting stark, symbolic images, using oils on Masonite. But it was a class Stephen took at the Athenian School in Diablo (we had relocated to Northern California when Stephen was 11) in high school that introduced him to his calling. His photography portfolios earned him a scholarship to a summer photo workshop at the University of Arizona and later, admission to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
He quickly gained notice for his work, landing positions as executive editor and fashion and photo editor, respectively, of Bikini and Raygun, alternative music magazines since folded. At these publications, Stephen shot black-and-white portraits of actors such as Christopher Walken and John Lithgow and took the cover photos for Porno for Pyros, Morrissey and Perry Farrell, the frontman for Jane’s Addiction.
Stephen could also write, once penning a feature about a hurried trip to Paris to photograph the Beastie Boys in concert. Only a photographer with his kind of access could describe to readers how, backstage, he ran into Leonardo DiCaprio in the group’s dressing room.
In 1993, as Stephen’s reputation for imaginative portraiture grew, his freelance work expanded and appeared in the national publications LIFE, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Maxim and Spin. His work was awarded gold and platinum records—honors bestowed by recording companies.
When Stephen was interviewed by this magazine seven years ago, he was at a turning point in his career; he had shifted his focus to fashion advertising and stock agency work as the digital age changed the face of photography. It was, in some ways, a welcome direction for him. As he told writer Corina Knoll then: “I like the idea that my work is gonna be on thousands of phones. No one knows or cares where that picture came from. I like that anonymous aspect. It’s the total opposite of being a well-known photographer. In a way, it’s refreshing.”
In May 2013, at age 48, Stephen was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Despite intensive rounds of chemotherapy and major operations, he showed courage and resolve, even rising from his recovery bed after a major procedure in April 2014 to attend an event in Los Angeles in which he was one of three L.A. rock photographers recognized for his 20th-century body of work.
A certified Kundalini yoga instructor and practitioner who was twice elected to his neighborhood council in L.A., Stephen refused to let his illness get the better of him. Two years ago, he started a Tumblr blog titled “Fear of Beauty,” in which he reflected on his journey through the pain and healing, and support of his family and friends, in candid detail.
He kept up his writing all the way up to June 2015, the month of his passing. Never bitter, but grateful for the remarkable journey that was his life—that was my son.
“I have no fear of beauty left, because my life, Life itself, is beauty, and I am a part of it,” he wrote in an entry dated May 20, 2014. “I have the good fortune to draw breath, to see the sky, to experience the wonder of being human. My life will end, so will yours, and all we ever have is the experiencing of it. Do beautiful things, assert your beauty, realize that you already are beautiful and do it now, because now is what we get to work with.”
This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue ofKoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)