Dennis Stock: American Cool

This piece is a reaction. An impression. A reverberation of a powerful artistic wave set in motion by the photographer Dennis Stock that I felt viscerally when I picked up a dusty volume of his work in a roadside bar in Cesena, Italy.

Believe it or not, I’d never even heard of the photographer, and there was no captivating image on the cover to draw me in. The small, faded volume was sandwiched in a disorganized, sideways leaning array of books on topics ranging from travel to Buddhism to Etruscan Art, all in Italian.

It must have been something about the age, the condition, or the font on the slim binding and the iconic sounding name that made me reach for it. I reverently wiped dust off the cover, as if handling some sort of relic, and listened to the binding crack as I looked inside. It was a time warp.

I sat transfixed for about an hour while my boyfriend finished up his business with the owner of the neighboring music venue. Somehow, my interest in how he handled concert booking and the potential this new venue had for his business completely faded. When I eventually did have to put the book down and walk over to the club next door, I was in another world.

As I stared up at the rafters of the empty space, the mega lighting and sound equipment, I couldn’t help but think about how Stock would play with the light in his black and white compositions until the gritty place took on a legendary tone. I pondered how he might find the absurd in the space and mix it with a sense of minimalism and sophistication like he did in so many photographs I was cycling through in my head.

I’d realized from looking through the book that I had seen Stock’s photographs before. I’d seen his notable snapshots of James Dean whom he befriended on his rise to fame and photographed just before his death. I’d seen the dreamy picture of Audrey Hepburn leaning out of a reflective limo on the brink of fame. I’d seen his stunning portraits of jazz greats like Miles Davis where he seems to distill the whole soul of that musical movement down to a single photo frame. For those handful of shots alone he deserves to go down in history.

And yet, I’m more transfixed by the weird I see in his work. The absurdly Americana, like in his Planet of the Apes set photography, or the hippies and bikers he encountered on his cross-California counter culture voyage documented in California Trip (Penguin, 1970).

To catch more of the lesser known Stock, check out American Cool, published by Reel Art Press in 2013. This very latest release of his work offers an even deeper look into the strange trips of the photographer, from glamorous celebrity encounters to weird, sometimes dark, forays into american counter culture and middle american life.


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