Dennis Stock has died at the age of 81. He began his long career at Magnum in 1951 shortly after winning first prize in the LIFE Magazine young photographers contest. Widely known for his intimate portraits and coverage of James Dean, Dennis covered a wide range of stories for all the major magazines, publishing at least 16 books. He was always finding the heart of the subject matter and making compelling, beautifully composed photographs that everyone of my generation grew up remembering. He was a living link to what he often called a “golden” age of photography and an inspiration to me and countless others.
Dennis made pictures that get into your head and never leave. Simple moments that articulate a whole culture. His work in jazz and covering the hippie movement are great examples. He did this with passion and grace and with an open mind and heart. This was a man who lived and breathed photography and exemplified the life well lived.
He was also a dear friend and mentor and his gift to me was a constant vigilance and questioning of what I was doing or planned to do. He helped me immensely at a time when I was at a crossroads with very generous advice. He sometimes had a harsh style and could be intimidating, but that was because of his tremendous passion and belief in his ideas. He was old school, and unwilling to tolerate the least amount of bullshit from anyone. But he had a heart of gold and cared deeply about people, the world in which he lived, and his friends and family.
In my last conversation with Dennis a few days before he died he had just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and given two months to live. Yet it was not really a sad conversation and we made plans to visit this weekend. He was too fierce to give up and I certainly could not accept the diagnosis as any kind of reality. But it was definitely the gentlest, easiest conversations we’ve had. Usually we debated the many issues we disagreed on. We even debated the ones we agreed on actually. But in this conversation he talked lovingly of his dear wife, the bestselling author and memoirist Susan Richards, who met and married Dennis three years ago. She brought him immeasurable happiness and balance at the very end of his long life, a blessing. He spoke of his “brilliant” son and grandson and their families. He was immensely proud of his offspring and described their considerable and impressive accomplishments. We talked about his years with Magnum, about his mentors and inspirations, his longtime colleagues he admired such as Elliott Erwitt, and his battles and frustrations.
An example of the kind of thing we would talk about a lot was compostion. During our last talk, without any sense of bragging or ego, Dennis said, “for whatever reason, I was given the ability to frame anything. I can make a great composition instinctively.” He was stating a fact. Just look at his pictures. He also deeply believed in the precepts of HCB in regard to it not being enough to capture the moment, you had to also frame that within a pleasing geometric composition. For Dennis, this is how you catch the eye of the viewer, and this is how you make your pictures memorable.
We talked about his early days and I asked him about Eugene Smith. He told a few Smith anecdotes and the story about how Smith hired and fired him and sent him to Gjon Mili. We got on to the subject of the uncanny portrait taken by Andreas Feininger that graced the cover of LIFE after Dennis won the award in 1951. Dennis mentioned that a few years back one of his workshop students came to him and asked if he could recreate that portrait of Dennis. Although Dennis was a skeptical of the idea he consented and was quite amused and happy with the result in that he had this sort of bookend set of portraits at the beginning and near end of his life.
We once had a show at our former Woodstock Gallery of his Hollywood work, which was a rare and crazy priviledge. In general, except as I said for this last conversation, Dennis kicked my ass almost every time we spoke– constantly, urgently talking to me about what I was doing, or what he thought I should be doing, with my work and my life. That was a gift I can never repay. I was truly lucky to meet him and have him in my life, even briefly.
Dennis was the real deal. He will be sorely missed.