The story of Dennis Stock (1928-2010) is intertwined with the story of cool. Such is the fate of a virtuoso photographer who, present at the right time and the right place, potently documented America’s passage from strait-laced postwar gloom into the fiery emotions of the misfit mid-century. His portraits hinted at the blooming counterculture: a dissenting, introspective crowd equally given to brooding loneliness and ecstatic reverie.Â It is no exaggeration to say that, for one, his 1955 shots for Life magazine helped craft the myth of James Dean. While shooting a visual essay on the actor not long before his fatal car accident, Stock snapped the legendary, and legend-forging, image of Dean in Times Square, strolling what Life called the the Street of Broken Dreams. As Adam Gopnik saw it: “bearing the weight of a generation on his shoulders.” With his hunched posture, enveloped in his overcoat, and that squint, that cantilevered cigarette, he lookedÂ uncannily like Albert Camus. Shielding himself from the rain, seemingly the last citizen of New York, Dean was the picture of the existential loner.
Invited on to the set of Billy Wilder’s film Sabrina, Stock displayed his talent for capturing moments of vulnerability, when artists conscious of publicity and image fleetingly let their guards down. Here we see Audrey Hepburn resting on a car window, lost in thought, perhaps, casting her famously gamine gaze downward. “She was very un-Hollywood, which was the key to the whole thing,” Stock remembered. “She wasn’t glamorous. She didn’t try to be glamorous.”
The spirit of the age was available in his portraits: you could sense the national mood shifting. In 1968, freezing a moment of abandon on Venice Beach, he expressed the libertine freedom of that time. A woman stood, back to the camera, against a sea of youth rapt by music, simultaneously an individual and part of something larger. It’s no surprise that his philosophy of photography was refreshing and vital–“To be able to continue an attitude of childlike discovery into adult existence can only be perceived as a gift toward the individual’s spiritual survival”–and it spoke to both the joy of artmaking, and its place in a full life.
Stock worked for the prestigious Magnum agency for six decades. They gather more of his work here.