Saturday, 13 February 2016

Moody New Star: A Portrait of James Dean by Dennis Stock

Dennis Stock was a young photographer working for the Magnum agency when he met James Dean in the winter of 1954, at a party hosted by director Nicholas Ray at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. As Stock observed a moody Jimmy slouched on a chair, he wondered what Ray had seen in him to give him the lead role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After exchanging a few polite words, Stock learned they had someone in common: Gjon Mili, the renowned LIFE magazine photographer at whose New York studio Elia Kazan had shot Jimmy's screen test for East of Eden (1955). Stock had worked as Mili's apprentice for four years upon his discharge from military service and was also his good friend.

James Dean and Dennis Stock in 1955
Because Stock was unfamiliar with Dean's work, he accepted Jimmy's invitation to attend a preview of East of Eden later in the week at a Santa Monica theatre. When Dennis saw the film, he was mesmerized by Jimmy's heartfelt performance and realized right away that he was witnessing the debut of a legendary actor. «There's no question that a star was born with the first public screening of East of Eden. The entire audience applauded as the house signaled the end [...] I knew that I had to do a story on James Dean,» Stock later wrote.

After the screening of East of Eden, Stock and Dean made a date to meet the next day for breakfast at Googies, a popular Sunset Strip rendezvous for young aspiring actors. Jimmy spoke of his childhood in Fairmount, Indiana with such feeling and nostalgia that Stock told him he would like to do a «visual biography» of his youth, as well as of his early days as a struggling actor in New York. What Stock was proposing was a photo essay that «reveal[ed] the environments that affected and shaped the unique character of James Byron Dean.» Jimmy said he was planning to go to New York to «tidy up some of the loose ends of his life.» After that, he wanted to go to Fairmount for a few days' rest at home with his aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow, who had raised him on their farm after his mother died of cancer when he was nine years old. He invited Dennis along to chronicle the experience, which the photographer eagerly accepted. Thus began a soul-searching journey into the depths of Jimmy Dean.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK | January 1955

Jimmy and Dennis flew to New York together and parted company at the midtown bus terminal, scheduling a meeting for the following morning at the actor's top-floor apartment on West 68th Street. When Stock arrived, he was surprised to find a small and stateroom-like flat, crammed with books, records and other artefacts indicative of Jimmy's interests and inner life. According to the photographer, «Jimmy had a need to be surrounded by books, but I'm not sure he was a real reader.» Dennis spotted dozens of books about the theatre, Charlotte's Web by E. B. White, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann and several works by Franz Kafka. As for his interest in music, Jimmy said, «I collect everything from 12th and 13th-century music to the extreme moderns — you know, Schönberg, Berg, Stravinsky. I also like Sinatra's Songs for Young Lovers album.» The horns and cape hung on the wall reflected his interest in bullfigthing, which a minister in Fairmount had turned him on to when he was younger. «I don't know whether Jimmy actually ever saw a bullfight, but he played a lot with that cape — fantasised, I suppose,» Stock wrote. «There was something bull-like about Jimmy — testy, untamed, aggressive.»

Jimmy at his apartment on West 68th Street

The following morning, after a breakfast of coffee and toast at Cromwell's Drugstore in Rockfeller Center, they went for a walk through the city Jimmy loved. They visited Jimmy's old haunts, including Jerry's Bar on West 54th Street, across the street from the old Ziegfeld Theatre, and then Stock photographed the brooding young actor playing bongos with Cyril Jackson; attending a Katherine Dunham dance class, which included singer Eartha Kitt (with whom he later had a date); pondering the many problems of being famous in the office of his agent, Jane Deacy; chatting with actress Geralding Page in her dressing room and then having coffee with her; visiting a barber's shop near Times Square, where he simply walked into without any explanation; and returning to the legendary Actors Studio just around the corner, where he had studied method acting under Lee Strasberg.

(left to right, top to bottom) Katharine Dunham helps Jimmy get in the right position; learning to dance with Eartha Kitt;
playing the bongos with Cyril Jackson; Jimmy at Jerry's Bar on West 54th Street

(top to bottom, left to right) Jimmy pondering the future at Jane Deacy's office; in Geraldine Page's dressing room;
having a coffee with Geraldine Page at a bar; Eartha Kitt admiring a poster of East of Eden

(top to bottom) A visit to the barber's shop; at the Actors Studio

For a few days, they wandered around Manhattan while Dennis photographed Jimmy interacting with people on the streets. «I wasn't interested in a lot of the poses Jimmy took,» Stock later recalled. «They were artificial, so I let him go through a lot of nonsense until he relaxed and become spontaneous. Then I took photos that I thought were revealing of his true character. Our collaboration was the best imaginable for a portrait exploration.» Jimmy occasionally stopped during his meandering and Dennis took these opportunities to capture him against billboards, below the 42nd Street marquees and in front of a paddy wagon. The classic picture of Jimmy walking alone in the rain in Times Square, a cigarette dangling in his mouth, is a perfect example of their collaboration and has been considered one of the foremost iconic images of the 20th century.

(left to right, top to bottom) Walking down West 52nd Street; braving the rainy weather in Times Squares;
visiting the area around Times Square; a little girl showing Jimmy a pheasant head; near 55th Street

 The Times Square photograph is a perfectly realized image of what Jimmy tried to do all his life: set up a situation in whic he would play the starring role. He enters the selected scene — a rainy, cold city street — wearing an oversized coat with collar turned up, frail body slightly bent, preceded by a wet seallike shadow. It tells his story: the loner in the city, exuding nausea, sensitivity and inner pain. Yet Jimmy does not despair; he walks into the picture, invinting us to follow with rakish tilt of his cigarette.
(David Walton)


After two weeks in New York, they flew to Indianapolis, Indiana and then went by bus to the small farming town of Fairmount, where Jimmy lived from the age of nine to eighteen. Within minutes of their arrival at the Winslow farm, Jimmy changed into his old work clothes — green shirt, green army-surplus fatigue pants, worn boots and a camel-hair cap. He was excited to be back where he grew up, anxious to show off the place he called home. Stock soon realized that his initial guess was correct; one of the major influences of Jimmy's life was his rural upbringing. Most of the photos Stock would take of Jimmy during their time in Fairmount were on the Winslow farm. These included Jimmy lying down in a grain trough with heifers; posing with a huge sow; playing his bongo drums surrounded by livestock; kidding around with his cousin Markie; listening to his paternal grandfather's tales; and reciting his favorite poet, fellow Hoosier James Whitcomb Riley.

Life on the Winslow farm

(left to right, top to bottom) Reading a poem by James Whitcomb Riley; Jimmy with his grandfather, Charlie Dean;
Jimmy playing with his cousin, Markie

As Jimmy guided Stock through the streets of Fairmount, clusters of townsfolk gathered around them. Although East of Eden had not been released yet, Jimmy's numerous appearances in television dramas had turned him into a local celebrity. He was at ease joking with old friends and young fans, who did not seem to be aware of Stock discreetly taking pictures. They visited Jimmy's old high school, where a Valentine's Day dance was being held, as well as Fairmount's Park Cemetery, where the young actor stood alongside his great-grandfather Cal Dean's headstone. Ironically, Jimmy's character is East of Eden is also named Cal.

(left to right, top to bottom) Signing autographs during the Sweethearts Ball at Fairmount High; Jimmy with his cousin Markie
talking to townspeople; with Markie visiting the gravestone of his great-grandfather; Jimmy in his old classroom

On one of those cold days in Fairmount, while walking through the town, they passed by Hunt's Furniture Store on Main Street. Jimmy asked Dennis to follow him as he walked into a closed and windowless back room where there were dozens of coffins on display. To Stock's horror, Jimmy took off his boots and climbed into a bronze casket. He crossed his arms and instructed Dennis to «snap away.» The photographer promptly refused, saying that it was «in bad taste,» and told him to get out of the casket. Jimmy insisted and Stock indulged him by taking a sequence of pictures showing the young actor lying down with his hands clasped over his chest, smiling and making infantile expressions. «He was not funny,» Stock later recalled. «I had no idea he was going to do that, and I'd never have suggested he do such things. It frightened me, and I know it frightened him, too. In retrospect, I think his way of dealing with fear was to make fun of it, to taunt it.» The last photograph Stock took was of Jimmy sitting up in the coffin, hands clasped and staring directly at the camera, a lost expression on his face. «I just wanted to see how it felt,» he explained. Considering the fatal events that happened just seven months later, one inevitably wonders: did he know?

"A lost person who really doesn't quite understand why he is doing 
what he is doing"

«We were both saddened by the end of the week in Fairmount,» Stock recalled. «Jimmy knew he'd never be coming back to the farm. That's why he had me set up the last shot of him in front of the farmhouse, with him looking one way and his dog, Tuck, turning away from him. It was his interpretation of that line, 'You can never go home again.' I don't mean that he thought he was going to die, but that he just felt it was gone. There was no way he could ever return to what he'd been, and that's what the farm represented to him.» Within a year, Jimmy returned to Fairmount and was buried alongside generations of Deans and Winslows in the meadowland outside of town.

Stock captioned this picture "You can never go home again"

After saying goodbye to Fairmount, they flew back to Los Angeles, where Jimmy was due to start filming Rebel Without a Cause. By now, Dennis and Jimmy had become good friends and were able to carry on their relationship during the making of the film, since Nicholas Ray hired Stock as a stills photographer on Rebel. While Dean was working on his next picture, George Stevens's Giant (1956), Stock was in France photographing Spencer Tracy on location for the film The Mountain (1956). He returned to Hollywood as Giant was wrapping production and Jimmy invited him to accompany him to Salinas, California, where he planned to race his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder. Dennis initially accepted, but then something inside him made him change his mind. The following day, newspaper headlines announced that James Dean had been killed in a tragic car accident while driving west through Route 466, on his way to the Salinas Road Races.

Flying back to California

Published in LIFE magazine on March 7, 1955, Stock's remarkable photo essay on James Dean captured «an introspective, intensely self-analyzing (and occasionally self-absorbed) artist — albeit one who could, at times, also be self-deprecating almost to the point of parody.» Stock said the editors did not appreciate his «down-home» approach and the fact that his story was focused on an unknown actor. «How can we tell this is a star? How do we know who the hell this is?» they asked. Luckily, one illuminated editor rescued the story: «Look, this kid Dean is going to be really hot. As Stock's the only one who's got it, so we've got to go with it.» LIFE revealed the farmboy's true identity by also including stills from the upcoming East of Eden and an explanatory note on the first page of the story, which they titled «Moody New Star.» When Stock's beautiful photographs appeared in LIFE, in conjuntion with the release of East of Eden two days later, James Dean became a bona fide movie star. It is a shame that he did not live long enough to enjoy his success.

James Dean: "Dream as if You'll Live Forever" by Karen Clemens Warrick (2006)

James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography by David Walton (2001)
Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean's Final Hours by Keith Elliot Greenberg (2015)
TIME article by Ben Cosgrove
Independent article by Joe Hyams
All photos found on

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