His iconic portraits of James Dean in a wintry New York triumphed him fame. But it was his advances in the west coast that brought out his true genius, as he captivated the crackings in the 60 s counterculture

‘For many years California scared the shit out of me ,” Dennis Stock wrote in the preface to California Trip, first be made available in 1970 . “ For a young man with traditional concerns for spiritual and aesthetic guild, California seemed too unreal. I passed .”

Stock, a naturally sceptical New Yorker who had have participated in the US Navy before hustling his style into the grades of the reverenced Magnum photo busines, had instinctively picked up on the edgy overtones of the late 1960 s Californian hippy dream. As the idealism of that decade peaked and faded, California became what Stock called a” brain laboratory”- provoking many radically alternative life-styles fuelled by eastern mysticism, experiments in communal living, and all kinds of post-LSD knowledge expansion.

And, as the portraits in the freshly reissued California Trip show, Stock’s initial apprehensive incomprehension soon turned to fascination. In time, he came to see California as the frontier for a new kind of society where” technological and spiritual pursuings vibrate … intermingling, often establishing the ethereal “.

Photograph: Dennis Stock/ Magnum Photos

Almost 50 year later, and nine years after his death, California Trip now seems both prophetic and elegiac, Stock’s free-flowing approaching allowing the inconsistencies of the time to speak for themselves. The authorities have portraits of sun-kissed, back-to-nature hippy duets and marching black militants, missile footings and utopian communes, endless Californian beaches and a tower load of rusting autoes in a scrap yard. In one photo, a tousle-haired infant frolic next to a Hells Angels motorcycle gang member. To Californians, he wrote, this was ” all so ordinary as to be mundane “.

With hindsight, it is clear that California Trip upends our received notion of Dennis Stock, who remains most famous for his intimately detected likeness of the young James Dean in the months before his death in September 1955. Stock befriended the young Dean after ascertaining an early screening of East of Edenand subsequently photographed him on the wintry streets of New York and on a trip back to his family home in Fairmount, Indiana. When the ensue photo essay appeared in Life magazine, it helped cement Dean’s status as a new kind of film star: crabby, intense and ill at ease with the Hollywood fame plant. In the immediate wake of Dean’s untimely demise in a auto accident, Stock’s epitomes attained an nearly mythic aura that remains to this day, arguably overshadowing his other work.

‘ The icon got in the way’ … Stock’s shot of James Dean, New York, 1955. Photograph: Dennis Stock/ Magnum Photos

” Dennis was not always happy about the standing of the James Dean photos ,” says Hanna Sawka, who guided the illuminating 2011 documentary, Beyond Iconic: Photographer Dennis Stock.” He made some quite bitter comments about the pictures, that parties weren’t seeing them as they should because the icon went in the way .” Stock’s widow, generator Susan Richards, who describes him as” the most confident person I ever congregated”, recalls that the prominence of the Dean photographs” maybe flawed him a little bit, but he likewise known that the iconic stature of likeness enabled him to have the lifestyle “hes had” “.

Stock had connected Magnum in 1951 and, the subsequent year, shot an extraordinarily candid series about Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia for Life magazine. Following the success of the Dean series, he began photographing jazz musicians, incorporating stark, monochrome portraits of the likes of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong with often drastic images of their performances.

In a mode that was unadorned and intimate, he set about capturing current realities of the nomadic jazz life as well as its drama. In one suggestive epitome, a struggling musician, Bill Crow, lugs abass across a Manhattan street in what looks like the early hours of the morning. In another, he captivates an ecstatic Earl Hines pounding on the forte-piano in a smoky fraternity, the feeling of the music’s joyful force palpable in a single stilled moment.

Against all this, the portraits in California Trip trace a spectacular leaving, though one that had been taking shape in his work throughout the 1960 s. The more free-flowing narrative style of Stock’s Californian situations was surely be a primary consideration in his dalliance with the moving epitome, which began when he left Magnum in 1968 to focus on documentary film-making. It also speaks of a relentless artistic curiosity and open-mindedness that, as Sawka’s film testifies, was not always immediately self-evident in his everyday interactions with people.

In the cinema, as he teaches a photography class, his students often seem overawed by the sheer presence of a male whose beliefs tend to be strongly braced and powerfully expressed.” He was quite a personality ,” says Sawka, giggling.” Sometimes people were offended by him, but the gruffness disguised a deep sensitivity and soundnes .”

Shadow play … Playa Del Rey, LA, 1968. Photograph: Dennis Stock/ Magnum Photos

Richards concurs:” He took no captives. He is likely to be stern with parties, including his friends and, the next instant, the gentlest, sweetest guy. If you didn’t know him, he could appear arrogant .” Richards, who was his fourth wife-” I satisfy him when he was older and mellower and not touring so much better”- puts his combativeness down to a childhood in the Bronx that was tagged by privation and family dysfunction.

” His father was a helpless being, and his father was absent a lot because his activity as a mansion painter involved him to travel.[ Stock] was raised in their own families that moved in the night a lot because they could not pay the rent. He told me that, when he was just seven, he was working odd undertakings to support his mother. That kind of experience leaves its distinguish and I is of the view that, to a certain degree, he was ashamed of his childhood poverty .”

It also made him resilient. He provided his photographic apprenticeship with Gjon Mili, an Albanian-born pioneer in progress photography, who formerly brutally informed Stock he would never be a Life photographer.” Dennis did not see that as a bad thing ,” says Richards.” It wheeled right off his back. He read it as that he would never fit the mould that Life required- which was fine by him .”

For all his combativeness, Stock was essentially a liberal New Yorker who was instinctively drawn to the promise of the Californian counterculture of the late 1960 s and early 70 s. The most well-known image from CaliforniaTrip is also the most subconscious and intuitive. Shot from behind, his vibrant portrait of a young lady in a cotton dress dancing on theatre at a rock-and-roll carnival in Venice Beach in 1968 exudes all the exuberant optimism of the time.” This kid precisely marched up on stage and started dancing ,” he would later recall, likening her to” a contemporary ballerina”- and himself to his hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The hippy dream … Novato, California, 1968. Photograph: Dennis Stock/ Magnum Photos

California Trip, though, perhaps owes more to an American tradition of street photography that pulls back to Robert Frank, Walker Evans and beyond. Stock’s east coast outsider gaze adjudicates on the darkness of the California dream as well as the sunlight: bikers, anti-war protesters, the disenfranchised as well as the visionary. In one arresting image, a black couple in a ceremony in Watts, Los Angeles, had generated an ornate tableau in which the latter are series to the Liberty Bell. An idyllic image of a hippy couple on horseback presents course to a painting of Anton Szandor LaVey, the self-styled high priest of the Church of Satan, who constitutes theatrically in front of a pentagram and a human skull.

” If there is a thread to be observed throughout my work ,” Stock later said,” it’s that I’m relatively affirmative, I’m not inclined to form chumps of people and I love beauty .” As the reissued California Trip testifies, he had an acute eye, more, for the darkness throw by the unforgiving Californian light, the darkness beyond the surface dazzle.

* California Trip is out now, reissued by Anthology Editions.


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