Room to Dream

James Dean photographed by Dennis Stock. Fairmount, Indiana, February 1955


“A fantasy, a dream, a young man whose passage was too swift
to clog any of the mechanisms of his flight: that is James Dean;
and that is why an adolescent throng has raised a statue
to him in snow, more enduring than many in marble.”

Jean Cocteau


Dennis Stock’s most famous photograph of James Dean is perhaps the one that shows the actor walking in rain in Times Square, bare-headed, shoulders shrugged, neck withdrawn into the collar of his big dark coat, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, Astor cinema, where Rebel Without a Cause, not yet released, would premier, in the background to the left.

But the photograph of James Dean that I find the most haunting is this one, taken by the same Dennis Stock, on the same February of 1955, the month of Dean’s birth. It was taken in Fairmount, Indiana, on the driveway to Winslow Farm, where he grew up with his aunt and uncle, as part of the same photo essay as the Times Square shot that Dennis Stock did for Life magazine before any of the actor’s films was even released. It was the last time James Dean would return to Fairmount. Six months later, in September, he would be dead, in a car accident. “The news, which we learned in Paris he next day,” wrote Truffaut, “did not arouse much attention at the time. A young actor, twenty-four years old, was dead. Six months have passed and two of his films have appeared, and now we realise what we have lost. […] James Dean’s acting flies in the face of fifty years of filmmaking; each gesture, each attitude, each mimicry is a slap at the psychological tradition.”

Fairmount, Indiana. “To get where I am today, you have to go back to where I came from” – I don’t know who said that, but it deserves more credit. The vastness of the land, the simplicity of the countryside. It was what had made him. That was his room to dream. That’s the story I see in this photograph. Hope, loneliness, dreaming, continual fantasising, an unpredictability called for by and beyond the stillness of his surroundings, the feeling of being an outsider and the desire to be in while refusing to change for the world. Without even realising it, or who knows, he was already a myth in the making. He was his own director.

People with different backgrounds dream differently. James Dean’s background was restrictive yet vast enough to allow him the freedom to disobey, the room to make his own myth. Dennis Stock remarked that James Dean posed for that shot as his own interpretation of “you will never see the farm again”. Maybe that’s true. Maybe even in the face of his promised fame there was a thread of disobedience. That’s why I think this photo speaks of the past as much as it speaks of the future. Everyone has their own image of James Dean, said Dennis Stock at the end of his documentary Comme une image, James Dean?. I believe that’s true. Because many still find something of themselves in James Dean.

“It is easier to identify with James Dean than with Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant or Marlon Brando,” Truffaut wrote. Dean’s personality is truer. Leaving a Bogart movie, you may pull your hat brim down; this is no time for someone to hassle you. After a Cary Grant film, you may clown around on the street; after Brando, lower your eyes and feel tempted to bully the local girls. With Dean, the sense of identification is deeper and more complete, because he contains within himself all our ambiguity, our duality, our human weaknesses.”

Or it could be that some find something in him that they could never be.

Jean Cocteau must have been right: “Moreover, all young people who are denied disobedience because they lack orders and hierarchies, are also deprived of mysticism and look around them for an ideal which will be the model of their dreams in flesh and blood.”

James Dean was that kind of an ideal.

Today is his birthday.



Jacques Henri Lartigue, the ultimate Peter Pan of photography:
Interview with Michael Hoppen

Bonnie Lee and the leather jacket flying men in “Only Angels Have Wings”

The story behind one of the most famous photos of Marilyn Monroe:
Interview with Pierre Vudrag

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