September 30, 2016

Orders of Photographic Identity Construction [11/7/11]

Administrator's Note: In memory of James Dean who died tragically 61 years ago today I am re-posting my essay on photographic identity construction from November 2011. Even in Dean's brief lifetime his cinematic myth had begun with 1950's teens' appropriation of his jean-clad, windbreaker rebel image. One wonders what the 85-year-old James might have been up to in the 21st Century had he lived.  

In 1865, photojournalist Alexander Gardner had six of the accused Lincoln conspirators brought up on the deck of the USS Montauk, an ironclad monitor anchored in the Potomac River, and posed them for a series of famous photographs. Irrespective of their historic value, these photographs additionally reveal Gardner’s desire for an “artistic” expression in his photographic work. The accused men were dressed in coats and ties, hair combed and styled, then positioned against the iron turret for the various shots.

The above photograph of Lewis Payne then presents quite a conflict of photographer, portrait subject and image. First, we have a young man accused of savagely attacking Secretary of State William Seward with a knife and conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to overthrow the Federal government. Moreover, the photographer appears to disguise Payne’s predicament, draping him in beige overcoat and hat. The Federal guard’s hands, holding a bayoneted rifle, are just visible at edge of frame and if we look closely we can see a chain hanging from Payne’s wrist.

This exemplifies the primary way a photographic image constructs identity and demonstrates first order identity construction, as authorial control by the maker. For reasons forever unknown, Gardner decided to cast Lewis Payne as a dashing but disheveled rake, handsome and mysteriously at peace with his fate.

The use of photographic image to wield fiction and create mystique was coincidentally used the previous year by a youthful Jesse James. In the 1864 photograph above, a sixteen-year-old Jesse attired himself in dandy tie, rolled-brim cap and Colt revolver to introduce his vision of what he was soon to become – an outlaw. The “Wild West” was waning by then but was being immortalized in newspapers and “Dime Novels” and these accounts may have inspired Jesse to present himself thusly, using second order identity construction as the photographic subject self-crafts their own identity, fictional or otherwise.

Warner Brothers and their careful control and dissemination of James Dean’s image in “Rebel Without A Cause” might best represent the final order of photographic construction of identity. In the motion picture, Dean portrayed Jim Stark, a troubled teenager, and the film studio costumed Dean in blue jeans, white t-shirt and red windbreaker in many of the prominent scenes. It is said that the red windbreaker was “over-dyed” by director Nicholas Ray to achieve luminosity for the color film.(1)

As quintessential depiction of teenage rebellion and angst, Dean’s persona in “Rebel” has no equal during the 1950’s. Perhaps this is due to its third order identity construction masterfully dictated by the powerful film company. The film’s influence upon American teenager fashion was further impacted by Dean’s sudden, unexpected and tragic death in a car crash:

“Teenagers who saw the film latched onto Dean’s look. Actress Steffi Sidney, who plays a bit character in the film, later remembered that how after Rebel came out she would drive by her old high school and all the boys hanging out in front would have on that same red jacket.”(2)

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1. Bayse, Ali. “Cinemode: Rebel Without A Cause”.

2. Ibid.