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Photographer Dennis Stock: Life with James Dean

The new film Life tells how a press photographer, Dennis Stock, made friends with the screen idol while shooting a photo-essay. For the first time, all the pictures have been collected in a book, along with Stock's musings. Joe Hyams reports

Dennis Stock became involved in a curious fashion with James Dean. They met at a Sunday afternoon soirée in director Nicholas Ray's bungalow in the grounds of the Chateau Marmont, a Los Angeles hotel favoured by showbiz folk in the 1950s. Ray took Dennis by the arm and introduced him to a young man slouched in a chair. "Dennis," Ray said, "I want you to meet James Dean. He's an actor. Jimmy," he said turning to Jimmy, "This is Dennis Stock. He's a photographer, someone you should really get to know." Dennis wondered what Ray saw in the moody, bespectacled young man.

Dennis and Jimmy exchanged a polite few words until they learnt they had someone in common: Gjon Mili, the eminent Life photographer who had directed Jimmy's screen test in New York for Elia Kazan. Dennis had worked as Mili's apprentice for four years and was also his good friend.

Jimmy mentioned that he had just finished a film with Kazan and invited Dennis to attend a sneak preview of it later in the week at a Santa Monica theatre.

Jimmy's casual description of his work led Dennis to believe he had only a small role in East of Eden. Instead, Dennis found himself watching Jimmy's brilliant and profound performance as the lead actor. He knew he was witnessing the birth of a star. After the screening Dennis passed an alley alongside the theatre and saw Jimmy wearing a leather jacket, hunched on his motorcycle. He was alone. He grinned when he saw Dennis coming toward him and asked what he thought of the film.

"You are an outstanding actor!" Dennis blurted out.

They made a date to meet the next day for breakfast. In a nostalgic mood, Jimmy talked about his childhood in Fairmount, Indiana, with such feeling that Dennis told Jimmy that he would like to do a visual biography of his youth. Dennis also wanted to know where and how Jimmy had learnt his craft in New York. What Dennis was proposing was unique - a photo essay that revealed the origins of the actor.

Jimmy said he was planning to go to New York to tidy up some of the loose ends of his life. After that he planned to go to Fairmount for a few days' rest at home with his aunt and uncle Winslow, who had raised him on their farm after the death of his mother. He invited Dennis to go with him.

Jimmy and Dennis flew to New York together and parted company at the midtown bus terminal, making plans to meet the following morning at Jimmy's apartment on West 68th Street.

The following morning, they went for a walk. They visited Jimmy's old haunts and spent time socialising in Jimmy's apartment. 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," Dennis recalls. "They were artificial, so I let him go through a lot of nonsense until he relaxed and became 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 paused during his meandering. Dennis photographed him with billboards and movie marquees, a collage of imagery that has universal meaning in the background. Times Square, with its theatre district and motion picture palaces, was the ultimate address for actors. The classic picture of Jimmy in the rain walking alone in Times Square, a perfect example of their collaboration, is considered one of the foremost iconic images of the 20th century.

Jimmy and Dennis flew from New York to Indianapolis and then went by bus to Fairmount. Within minutes of their arrival at the Winslow farm, even before Dennis had unpacked his bag in the spare room, Jimmy appeared in his doorway grinning and giggling.

He was excited to be back where he grew up, anxious to show off the farm he called home. Dennis realised that his initial hunch was correct. One of the major influences of Jimmy's life was his rural upbringing. Most of the photos Dennis would take of Jimmy were on the farm or within a one-mile radius of it.

They visited Fairmount's Park Cemetery, where Jimmy stood alongside his great-grandfather Cal Dean's headstone. Ironically, months later, Jimmy would be interred in the cemetery.

On one of those cold days, while Dennis and Jimmy were walking through Fairmount, they passed by Hunt's Furniture Store on Main Street. "Follow me," Jimmy said and walked into a windowless back room where there were dozens of coffins. Dennis watched in horror as Jimmy took off his boots and climbed into a bronze casket. He crossed his arms and shouted, "Shoot."

Dennis took a sequence of pictures: Jimmy lying down with his eyes closed, hands clasped over his chest, smiling and making infantile expressions.

"He was not funny," recalls Dennis. "I had no idea he was going to do that. 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 picture Dennis took was of Jimmy sitting up in the coffin, hands clasped and staring directly at the camera, a lost expression on his face.

Implicit in the series of photos was Jimmy's dark side, coupled with his desire to be close to his mother, who had died when he was nine years old.

"We were both saddened by the end of the week in Fairmount," Dennis recalls. "I think we both knew that Jimmy would never come back home again and that life would never be the same for him there. The trip was really a nostalgic farewell to his origins, his way of saying goodbye to the past. I don't mean to imply that he felt he was going to die, but I believe that he felt that he was truly on the way to a far different life."

  • Dennis Stock: James Dean, introduced by Joe Hyams (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), is published on Tuesday

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