James Dean died on this day in 1955, driving a car at the speed at which he had lived. Twenty-four years old, he had become an icon of restlessness, unease, discontent. His dislike of convention seems to have inspired a similar unconventionality in others.
The photographer Denis Stock was sent on an assignment by Magnum. His pictures of Dean, a figure already regarded as a demi-god, were to acquire iconic status. One shot, In front of the driveway to Winslow Farm seems to defy all the rules.
James Dean stands in profile; his head and shoulders in the lower half of the frame, to the left of centre. Seven-eighths of the picture seem a mere background to the one-eighth that is the subject. Dean almost seems to have walked in front of a shot of a farm.
Going with a friend, who was a good amateur photographer, to the meetings of a local camera club back in the 1980s, it would be easy to imagine the comments from the gathering if one of those present had presented Stock’s picture as their own – they used to mutter about things like composition and pictures being comprised of three thirds.
Even those of us who know nothing about taking photographs, who just point our cameras, or, more often, our phones, and press a button, would probably have discarded the shot.
“Jimmy, would you stand still? Jimmy, would you look this way?”
With a digital camera, it would be a small matter to crop it, and to have a picture filled with the profile of James Dean.
Stock could have cropped the picture himself, could have presented an altogether different image, a fine portrait. That he defied what most of us would have thought was conventional, and chose to present Dean as a transient figure passing in front of the farm, captures a sense of the fleeting moment that was the twenty-four year life of James Dean.
Denis Stock was an embodiment of Shaw’s idea of progress. In his 1903 essay Maxims for Revolutionists, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.
Against the background, of conservative 1950s America, Stock’s photograph of James Dean is the work of a revolutionist. It is the work of someone who put ideas before convention.
Of course, revolutionists are much safer on the pages of a book; they are a pain to know. Convention is much safer; even in taking pictures, convention is much safer.
The capacity for taking and publishing pictures has increased in an extraordinary way in the six decades since Dennis Stock photographed James Dean, but the preference for the predictable and the conventional remain. Even though pictures and the publishing of them costs nothing, we are still happier with what we know, just look at the pictures that fill social media. Would even James Dean have inspired anything different?