James Dean, whose persona and charisma shaped the archetype of the daredevil gallant for the post-war American male, is photographed by Roy Schatt for Life Magazine in 1954, creating an iconic series that has become definitive in establishing the actor’s emblematic image. Roy Schatt had unexpectedly met Dean through a mutual friend, Arlene Sax, who wanted Schatt to meet and photograph Dean. After Dean broke the tension of the meeting by performing a dance from a recent play, the two became friends and Schatt agreed to teach Dean photography.
“He slouched, was unkempt and squinty. After a moment, he reached for my offered hand, grunted in response to my welcome and ambled to a seat at the far end of the couch. As he sat with his palms pressed between his knees, he seemed to shrivel. … “Castanets! Like this,” Dean said as he jumped up and performed the dance. It transformed him. The small lump on the couch rose to become a thing of beauty. I couldn’t get over how his unpleasant, pinched face gave way to handsome radiance.”
From February 1954 to September of 1955, the two struck up a “teacher and student” relationship, documenting Dean’s activities throughout the year whilst Dean shot his own pictures under the tutelage of Schatt. The “Torn Sweater’ series, was a result of that short-term but potent friendship.
In the post-war period, the younger generations were expected to willingly conform to social norms. An icon of teenage disillusionment and displacement, James Dean presented an Adonis-like, rebellious American youth, cementing his brand of rugged handsomeness and agitation with the main role in a film aptly named ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Dean’s cultural influence as the chief rebel of the “Silent generation” disrupted American conservative attitudes of the 50s. James Dean may very well have been the nation’s first glimpse as to what was about to come; the disaffected, misunderstood, and non-conforming pathos of an ever-revolving incipient youth that would make their indelible mark on the following decades.