How Dennis Stock took those iconic pictures of James Dean

When the Magnum photographer Dennis Stock met actor James Dean in Hollywood in 1955, something about the rising star caught his attention. The young actor had yet to make what would be the defining film of his short career – Rebel Without a Cause – and, while not completely unknown, he was not the iconic figure he would soon become. Yet Stock, who at the time was making a steady living as a photographer for Life magazine, couldn’t get the actor out of his head. He saw something in Dean – charisma certainly, an untapped star quality – and was determined to capture him on film.

So began the brief and at times fraught relationship between Dean and the photographer as he tried to convince the actor to make a photo essay for Life. The ups and downs of their relationship lie at the heart of a new film, Life, directed by Anton Corbijn, and starring Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson.

Dane DeHaan as James Dean (left) with director Anton Corbijn

Dean (DeHaan), wrapped up in his own bubble, is a tricky customer, not one who trusts easily, while Stock – ambitious, forceful, and unrelenting – refuses to let this opportunity slip through his fingers. Eventually Dean allows the photographer into his world and the pair travel from Los Angeles to New York and Indiana, where Dean grew up, making the iconic images that would come to define the legend that was and is James Dean.

Loosely structured around Stock and Dean’s travels over a two-week period in 1955, the film faithfully plays out the making of Stock’s famous images – the Times Square photographs, images of Dean at his family’s farm, and of the actor sitting in a barber’s chair. During the closing credits we see the original images that have been at the heart of the film all along. In a way, the film is about photography itself – in particular, the grit, steely determination and vision it takes to make great photographs.

Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock photographing DeHaan’s Dean

On another level, it is about the complexities and intensity of the relationship between a photographer and his subject, which, on this occasion unfolds between an ambitious jobbing photographer, keen to go beyond red carpet snaps and promo shots, and an actor on the way up, gradually coming to terms with his imminent fame. Both are aspiring artists; both have much to learn about life.

Corbijn, a successful photographer himself, is well placed to handle the subtle nuances of the photographer-subject dynamic. In Control, (2007), the Joy Division biopic, he channelled his experiences as someone who had made stills of the band into the making of a motion picture; in Life, the director arguably goes a step further, drawing on his first-hand photography knowledge more explicitly to portray – in a mostly convincing and layered way – Stock and Dean’s relationship. The result is a film that not only gives us in-depth portrayals of two complex individuals from different worlds, but also considers what it means to photograph and be photographed – namely that there is a lot of give and take involved, and trust must be built in order for any meaningful exchanges to occur.

Pattinson’s Stock in the dark room

Indeed, the film is as much about Stock as it is about Dean; a straightforward biopic of the actor it is not. A huge part of what drives Life is the tug of war that occurs between the two as they struggle to make their way in the world; each has an agenda and something to gain from the other. Ultimately, what Stock and Dean seek out and learn from each other is what gives the film its shape and thrust. Stock, who has a difficult relationship with his estranged wife and son, watches Dean’s “easy” way with his relatives and sees how one can ‘be’ with family. Dean, tentative about how to be famous, learns how to play the celebrity game.

As each opens up to the other, a relationship begins to form (albeit only for a short time) and the images start to flow. Stock’s persistence is rewarded; he gets the images that will help to make his name, while Dean gains immortality.

But the film’s ultimate message is perhaps far simpler than any of this. Despite its efforts to deconstruct and re-compose the relationship between the two artists, (which it does fairly successfully), Life reminds us that photography will ultimately outlive us all. As Stock almost prophetically tells Dean in the film: “Photography is a way of saying ‘I’ve been here, you’ve been here.’” It doesn’t get more honest than that.

Life is released in cinemas on Friday 25 September 2015.