James Dean Comes Home
Indiana State Museum
Through March 5
Photographs of James Dean by Dennis Stock will be at the Indiana State Museum through March 5.
A young man hunkers down over a toy car, fixed in concentration, as a boy looks on. In another photograph, the same man looks straight at the camera, his arm resting on a huge pig. His look is distant, cool. Or is it lonely, perhaps lost? Not until you see him in a classic pose, shoulders hunched against the wind and rain on a New York street, a cigarette persisting between his lips, do you see James Dean as he's remembered best - cool to the bone.
James Dean didn't live long enough to shed light on his mystery, one that would go down in history as laconic and complex, whether or not it was so. But Dean did live long enough to carry the projections of his time, including the slow breaking free from sexual repression that was so much a part of the '50s.
In Dennis Stock's black-and-white photographs, on view at the Indiana State Museum, James Dean is captured in both his most iconic moments and in some unusual ones - like helping his nephew fix a toy car, or standing next to a pig (but remaining as distant from it as Michelangelo's David). Then there's Dean poised in a stairwell at his high school, the shadows casting sharp angles all around him, forming a sort of imagined prison.
When photographer Dennis Stock met Dean in Hollywood, the young actor was just hitting his stride: He'd starred in three Hollywood movies within a year, which may have seemed like a lark to the Indiana farm boy from Fairmount. Dean returned home for his birthday, Stock in tow, where the photographer would capture him looking distant in that characteristic Dean way.
It's as if his feet never really touched the ground, even though we see him seated on the dirt, playing a bongo drum to the tune of a pig's oink, and despite his look of barely contained glee as he pushes his nephew in a go-cart down a snowy bank. How could someone of the earth look so outside of it?
After their trip to Indiana, Stock followed Dean to New York, where he shot the famous New York street photograph, plus others, less known: Dean in a bongo drum class, Dean in ballet class and Dean's apartment, its bookshelves crammed with books.
It was as if to say, here's James Dean: a real person - one of us, even. But he wasn't, or at least he wasn't meant to be.
Seven months after Stock photographed him sitting up inside a coffin in Fairmount, an ironic grin barely turning the corners of his mouth, Dean would return to his hometown in a coffin of his own. As most everyone knows, Dean met his end in a Porsche Spyder, killed in a crash at the unripe age of 24.
It's hard to say what would have become of him had he lived. But maybe Dean would have preferred to quit while he was ahead, leaving us with an enduring mystery, a phantom of himself. His death sounded a warning: There's always a price to pay, no matter which way you go. Photographs like these by Stock helped perpetuate Dean's mythic power, but they also remind us he was really just a kid who didn't know himself, and was still trying to find his way. Stock's photographs help us remember Dean, but they also help us remember the journey.
James Dean Comes Home is on view at the Indiana State Museum, third floor corridor, through March 5. The museum is located at 650 W. Washington St. Call 317-232-1637 or visit www.in.gov/ism for hours and information.