Leica icons: James Dean by Dennis Stock

In the first in a series on some of the most memorable photographs taken on a Leica, Rob Ryan looks at Stock's 1955 image of Dean walking through Times Square

On the face of it, it's a simple, almost snatched, photograph of a hunched young man walking through Times Square on a filthy winter's day. But like all great images, this one has a story to tell, for although it was not by any means a formally posed shot, this picture was weeks in the making. It could only exist because of an extraordinary set of circumstances that brought together the photographer Dennis Stock and the young actor about to explode onto the world, James Dean.

Unlike Dean, Stock, despite being only 26 in 1955, was not an unknown newcomer. He had won a young photographer's competition for Life magazine, was a member of the elite Magnum agency and counted Humphrey Bogart among his friends. Stock, always with a Leica round his neck, was a fixture at many Hollywood gatherings and red carpet events. But the artist in him was frustrated by what he saw as the superficiality of the regular LA routine. 'Dull photographs of famous people are often acclaimed primarily because of the status of the subject, so I tried to pursue themes that were best stated by a multipicture essay,' he later wrote.

A chance meeting at a Chateau Marmont soiree and an invitation to watch an advance screening of East of Eden gave Stock his next subject for a photo spread - the soon-to-be-famous James Dean.

Stock knew immediately that the charismatic Dean was destined to be a celebrity as big as Bogart. He called him 'an outstanding actor' and guessed that East of Eden would propel him beyond the gravitation pull of the quotidian and into the stratosphere of superstardom. 'The story, as I explained it, was to reveal the environments that affected and shaped the unique character of James Byron Dean.' This meant going back to the young man's rural roots in Fairmount, Indiana, and to his beloved New York, where he had learnt his craft. Stock was also aware that he only had a small window of opportunity to do this before the Hollywood machine swamped Dean. Luckily, Life magazine approved the assignment. 

So, in February 1955, just before Dean's 24th birthday, the pair travelled to New York and began to explore the actor's old haunts. It wasn't always easy. Dean was capricious and often evasive, but dogged persistence meant that Stock snapped Jimmy 'off duty' - having his hair cut, dancing with Eartha Kitt, drinking at Jerry's Bar and sitting in at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio. By the time Stock suggested Dean walk across a desolate Times Square - with its cinemas and theatres, the heartbeat of NYC for any aspiring actor - Dean not only trusted and liked Stock, he had relaxed before the photographer's ever-present Leica.

And so we have him frozen forever in a surplus navy pea-coat, collar up, cigarette glued to his lip, and those eyes, heavy from lack of sleep - Dean was an insomniac - which nevertheless burn with confidence. This is a boy from Indiana on the cusp of greatness, and even the foul weather can't dent his optimistic mood - the expression and the body language suggest he isn't just waterproof, he's bulletproof.

Stock, who died in 2010, would go on to take many more pictures of Dean, both in the farms and fields of Fairmount, Indiana, and on the set of Rebel Without a Cause, but that frame from Times Square remains the most iconic image of the actor, perhaps because it speaks most eloquently of a promise that would never be fulfilled.

James Dean died on 30 September, 1955 at the wheel of his Porsche Spyder.        

Dennis Stock's image of James Dean in Times Square is featured in the book Dennis Stock: American Cool, published by Reel Art Press, £45

Rob Ryan is an author and journalist for The Times and The Sunday Times