Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dennis Stock, a memory

I only discovered yesterday that photographer Dennis Stock had died back in January. This brought to mind his visit to my house in the bush at Karekare back in July 1996. Here is a picture of him, with curator Ron Brownson, arriving breathless but smiling at the top of the 105 near vertical steps cut into the bush from the road up to the house. Later we walked in the wind on the beach and I photographed Dennis sitting on the log in the Karekare pohutakawa glade where Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath had sat in a scene from Jane Campion's movie The Piano.

A long time Magnum member, Stock made the iconic photographs of James Dean in Times Square. Everybody knows these pictures but I suspect few remember who made them.

Here is Dennis's orbituary from The Times issue of January 16.

The photograph of James Dean in 1955 walking through New York’s Times Square in the pouring rain with a cigarette dangling from his mouth helped to immortalise the actor who would soon die in a car accident.

It also immortalised the work of the photographer Dennis Stock, whose talent for catching Hollywood actors off guard, in reflective, ambivalent portraits, would be captured on the bedroom-wall posters of millions of young people in decades to come.

The shot of Dean that appeared in Life, along with black and white pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando and others, documented the period of mid-Fifties cool that prefigured the explosion of youth culture to come. Stock was there to take some of the best pictures that documented that counterculture of jazz musicians, bikers and hippies as it unfolded over the following decade.

Stock grabbed the chance to work with Dean before he became established as one of Hollywood’s hottest properties. “I knew this guy would take off,” he said. He joined Dean on a trip to his home town of Fairmount, Indiania, in 1955, where he pictured the actor in a pigsty, at his family dinner table, and, presciently, lying down in an open coffin at a funeral parlour.

In the Times Square picture Dean is the only person visible in a soaking Manhattan. The impression created is of a lonely, bedraggled man who at the same time looks coolly unfazed by the bleak world around him.

Another Hollywood star perfectly suited to Stock’s liking of portraying an “attitude of childlike discovery in an adult world” was Audrey Hepburn. As with Dean, Stock was able to photograph her before she became too famous. He was tipped off by his friend Humphrey Bogart, who was about to make Sabrina with Hepburn. “Listen, I’m gonna make a movie with a kid I think you should know more about. She’s called Audrey Hepburn.” This led to his best-known shot of Hepburn, staring dreamily downwards out of a limousine, smiling but melancholic. “She was very un-Hollywood, which was the key to the whole thing,” said Stock. “She wasn’t glamorous. She didn’t try to be glamorous.”

Dennis Stock was born in 1928 in the Bronx to an English mother and a Swiss father. Living in near poverty during the Depression, the family moved several times and, after his father’s death, he joined the US Navy, aged 17, towards the end of the Second World War.

In 1947 he became an apprentice to the Life photographer Gjon Milli in New York. His break came in 1951 when his shots of East German immigrants arriving at New York Harbour won a competition. Stock was invited to join the Magnum agency and became its Holywood representative.

His next phase, from 1957-60, was a study of jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. The black and white shots of musician with instrument or singer with microphone were simplicity itself, but were made special by Stock’s capturing of the light shining on them in bars and clubs amid plumes of cigarette smoke.

In the Sixties, Stock travelled through the US with motorcycle gangs and then took photos of hippy concerts such as Woodstock. One of his best-known images was of the back of a loosely robed, sun-kissed dancer with swinging hair facing a vast audience at the Venice Beach Rock Festival in California in 1968.

Stock is survived by his wife, Susan, and three children.

Dennis Stock, photographer, was born on July 24, 1928. He died on January 11, 2010, aged 81

1 comment:

Ron Brownson said...

Hi Harvey
What a wonderful day we had together with Dennis Stock. His arrival in Auckland was hilarious. He was truly dazed by the long flight and was in such a rush to get to his hotel - The Regent. When his keys wouldn't open his bags he took a steel tool to them and crunched open the largest case. The contents immediately indicated that he was looking at women's clothing. Back to the airport for his own cases. Grr Grr!

Next day at the opening, which was a really provincial formal art event - far too black tie for Dennis' taste. He wore a corduary street coat, which immediately made him the evening's star!

He was a brilliant artist and really knew how to get close to people. His stories about James Dean will remain with me forever.
Ron Brownson
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki