One of the most iconic images of James Dean shows the actor walking right down the middle of the Times Square crossroads. It’s raining. He’s wearing an overcoat, his collar is turned up, he’s hunched over and a cigarette is dangling from his mouth. The photograph was taken by Dennis Stock in 1955. At the time, both Dean and Stock were still relatively unknown in the respective careers. Dean would soon explode onto the screen in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. As quickly as he became a star, it would be extinguished after his fatal car crash in September 1955. The star died, but an iconic legend was born.
I accidently found this film while browsing through a local library earlier this week. I was unfamiliar with it, in truth, I never heard of it before. What caught my eye was the DVD’s cover image that loosely reflects the famous shot of James Dean walking down the middle of Times Square. Only in this version there is another guy with him with a 35mm camera around his neck, and unlike the more casually dressed Dean, wears a conservative white shirt and tie. Life, (the title as you will learn has a double meaning) it turned out was the story of the unusual short friendship between James Dean and photographer Dennis Stock. I had to watch this!
For a short period in 1954-55, Dennis Stock would photograph James Dean in Hollywood, New York and in Dean’s hometown in Indiana. In Life, directed by Anton Corbijn, we follow this short lived friendship between a still unknown actor and a ambitious photographer, still looking for his own big break. Stock works for the Magnum Agency and convinces his boss that this young nobody of an actor is going to be the next big thing as soon as his first film, East of Eden, is released. Stock wants his bosses to convince Life magazine to do the story.
Corbijn is definitely suitable for the subject matter considering his previous life as a rock photographer. Dean is played nicely by Dane DeHann who more through mannerisms and speech than through physical looks captures Dean’s essence. Stock is played by Robert Pattinson. He’s a bit quirky and his personal life is a mess. Married young, he’s divorced with a young boy who he hardly sees. When he does see the boy, it’s uncomfortable. While Stock works for Magnum, his career is not going in the direction he wants. He wants to be an artist and have an exhibit instead of photographing the latest movie premiere.
Each in their own way are fish out of water. They meet at a party in Hollywood given by director Nicholas Ray who is considering Dean for his new film Rebel Without a Cause. Stock is there on one of his routine assignments. They begin an uneasy friendship. Stock comes to see Dean as someone special and on the rise. He convinces his bosses at Magnum, Dean would make a great subject for a photo essay for Life magazine. The assignment is approved, but Dean turns out to be a relentlessly elusive subject to tie down for a shoot. During the course of their short friendship, Stock followed Dean from Hollywood to New York and even back to his hometown farm in Indiana. In the course of this short time, Dennis Stock creates a series of portraits of the artist as a young rebel. Many of the photos shot during this period turned out to be some of most intimate moments of Dean we ever get to see, especially the images of his life back in Indiana.
Like James Dean, Corbijn’s film is all about mood and not action. To some it may seem like it meanders, but I felt that it fits the zigzagging mood of the two lead characters. Dean wants to be a star yet he fights the Hollywood system. Stock wants to be a photographic artist, but seems tied down by money worries and opportunity. The two men eventually go their own ways when Dean heads back to Hollywood to begin filming Rebel Without a Cause and later Giant, both released posthumously and kicking off Dean’s legendary status.
Ben Kingsley plays a thug like Jack Warner and almost steals the film from its two lead actors. In one scene, Warner, after Dean ridiculed a Warner Brothers film during an interview, warns the young actor he better stay in line or he will be quickly dumped.
After Dean went back to Hollywood, Dennis Stock remained in New York and focused his work on the city’s Jazz Scene. Over the next few years, he photographed artists like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa and Miles Davis among others. Most were not performance photos, but more personal and atmospheric moments that he captured. Stock liked to stay quietly in the background capturing those private moments when his subjects were unguarded. The best of his Jazz work were compiled into a book called, Jazz Street, published in 1962. Over the course of his long career, Dennis Stock turned his camera on many subjects including the youth revolution of the late 60’s including hippie communes in New Mexico and California. Later in life he did a lot of nature and landscape photography. One thing that always remained consistent was that Dennis Stock always photographed what he wanted. At the University of Texas where he once addressed a roomful of photojournalism students Stock said, “I’ve never taken an assignment, I’ve always photographed what I wanted to be photographing, and then worried about selling the pictures or doing something with them afterwards. I’ve always shot for myself, and when you’re shooting what you’re interested in shooting, you’re always going to be happy.”
Dennis Stock was born in 1928. A native New Yorker, he was raised in The Bronx and grew up during the Great Depression. At the age of 17, he left home and joined the Navy. After his discharge, Stock apprenticed under photographer Gjon Mili between the years 1947 and 1951. He also worked closely with W. Eugene Smith. Stock first gained recognition after he was one of ten winners in a Life magazine photography contest. Some of his fellow winners at the time included Ruth Orkin, Robert Frank and Elliot Erwitt. Heady company. This was soon followed by a position with Magnum. During his early Hollywood days, Stock photographed stars like Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and many others. Like his photos of James Dean, the photos were generally intimate, behind the scenes and unguarded moments. In 1955, his James Dean photo essay was published in Life just a short period before the actor’s death.
Over the years, there were more books published, exhibits, lectures and photographs. Always photographs. Dennis Stock died in 2010 at the age of 81. As the film, Life, suggest, Stock’s personal life was messy. He was married several times; his last wife was author Susan Richards. At the time of his death, he had three children, a grandson and five great grandchildren.
A posthumously released documentary on Stock called, Beyond Iconic: Photographer Dennis Stock made the film festival circuit in 2011. In was directed by Hanna Sawka Hamaguchi and narrated by Stock prior to his death. The film seems to be sadly only available to academic institutions and resources at exorbitant prices.
Sharpio, T. Rees, Dennis Stock, 81; Magnum Photographer Shot Iconic Moments, Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2010
Dunlap, David W. Dennis Stock, Photographer of Intimate Portraits, Dies at 81, New York Times, Jan, 15, 2010
A Small Sampling of Photographs by Dennis Stock