When Dennis Stock attended a screening of James Dean’s first film, East of Eden, he knew he wanted to photograph him. He sensed that this charismatic young actor would soon join Marlon Brando and Paul Newman as one of the major film stars of his generation. Stock, who had met Dean at a Hollywood party in January 1955, asked him to be the subject of a photo essay. Dean, who was not yet famous, readily accepted the invitation. Stock then approached LIFE magazine with the idea and within a week the assignment was agreed. It took two months to complete.
At the time, Stock was a 26-year-old photojournalist. He had joined the Magnum agency in 1951 and became a full member in 1954. From the beginning of his career he had been mainly interested in producing a sequence of images that told a story about a given subject. In his photographs of Dean, he aimed to show a young movie star in both his professional and personal life.
The first part of the assignment involved taking Dean back to his home town of Fairmount, Indiana. “For Jimmy, it was going home,” Stock later wrote, “but it was also the realization that the meteoric rise to fame had already begun to cut him off forever from his small-town Midwestern origins, and that he could never really go home again. Still, in those bitter-cold late winter days, as Jimmy and I roamed the town and farm and fields of Fairmount, visiting family and friends, I came to know, or at least to glimpse, the real James Dean.”
Stock’s photographs showed Dean in various locations: at home with family members, in a classroom at his old school and in a pigsty at his uncle’s farm. In one bizarre sequence, Dean was shown posing in an open coffin at a local funeral parlor. The pictures were intended to be darkly amusing but now seem strangely prophetic; seven months later, Dean was dead.
The rest of the assignment included images of Dean in New York, then in rehearsal and on film sets in California. Away from his home environment, Dean became unpredictable. “The moment we hit New York he started seeing old friends and ending up in bars for hours on end,” Stock later said. “He became an insomniac and very hard to work with, often not turning up at appointments. But I knew where to find him. I was simply tenacious.”