Friday, April 20, 2007

Warren Beath talks about Sanford Roth and the Death Photos

Did Sanford Roth take pictures of Dean's body?

Definitely. Here are two of them.

He is under a blanket in those pictures and the ambulance men are taking him to put him in the ambulance.

And here's a third, you can just see his feet under the blanket in the back of the ambulance.

I haven't seen that picture. So he did take pictures of Dean dead. But did he take pictures of
Dean in the car?

Sanford Roth said he did, if he was quoted correctly in a LIFE MAGAZINE article on Dean the year after the accident. He said no one would ever see them, that they were grisly and ghoulish, something like that. Bill Hickman, who was there, said Sanford Roth took pictures of Dean in the car. Roth never denied it, to my knowledge, while he was alive.

But his widow denied it.

She was madder than a wet hen after my book came out. She demanded an apology, and I told her I was sorry if I had hurt her feelings. She said you couldn't trust what Bill Hickman said. Then, she said Sandy only took the pictures for "insurance purposes." Now, I found that as callous as taking pictures of him in the car. At a time like that, would you be thinking of insurance companies?

Why else do you think such photos exist?

Maybe they have been destroyed. But I believe they existed at one time. Another Dean biographer, very reputable, told me about visiting Beulah and her brother* the screenwriter* brought up the subject of Dean in the car and told her to show him the pictures, indicated a drawer.

And he saw them?

She refused to take them out. In the last twenty years of her life there was quite a cottage industry around her and the cachet of being "Dean's friend". And to traffic in the pictures or even concede their existence would have diminished the golden corona with which she was awash among Dean fans.

What else?

Beulah pointed out, and it is to his credit, I suppose, in this controversy, that no photos of the crash were published while Sandy was alive. She said they were not published until years after Sandy passed away, but in fact they began appearing almost as soon as he was dead. His story "Assignment I'll Never Forget" was published a few months after he died, and with it was the classic Roth photo of the wreck with Rolf on the ground.

When did they next appear?

I believe more of the photos next surfaced in Rene Chateau's French biography of Dean in the seventies. Rene was a close friend to Beulah.

The book "A Passion for Speed" purported to show the unbroken strip of negative to refute the idea that Roth took any pictures of the wreck other than those already published.

If it hasn't been tampered with, that would be good evidence. And if Roth had only one camera. On the other hand, there is Roth's own statement that the pictures existed, and Bill Hickman's recollection. And so it goes...


johnnyrocket said...

I read somewhere just recently that the Roth estate had sold all of Roth's Negatives of James Dean crash scene image to a wealthy Japanese collector.

Spanielman said...

The Japanese investor who purchased Sanford Roth's negatives of Dean was Seita Ohnishi.

Some of Roth's shots that day, notably the close-up portrait of Dean and Rolf Wutherich in the Porsche (the photo that adorns the cover of WB's latest book, "James Dean - On the Road to Salinas") can still reveal interesting details when studied.

For instance, the weathered chain-link fence on the grass strip behind Dean is the fence that separates the Hollywood Freeway from E. Cahuenga Blvd. in the Cahuenga Pass. The elongated parkway divider (median) changed shape many times between 1955 and the 1960s as the new freeway was continuously widened and the position of lamp posts was adjusted.

In Roth's photo, the light-colored crescent shape above Dean is a wide curving driveway to a cross-shaped church (?) and the parking lot that was in that location from the 1940s until the 1970s. That same driveway is now the main entrance to the Cahuenga Hills Tennis Condominiums, at 2700 E. Cahuenga Blvd.

E. Cahuenga Blvd. can't be seen in the photo because it is lower in elevation than the freeway (for drainage) and hidden by the crown of the landscaped divider.

The converging hills on the horizon in the photo are identical to the ridge lines above the tennis condominiums -- except that they are much higher than in the Dean picture, where they would have been out of frame.

A professional retouch artist has apparently lowered the entire top half of Roth's picture to make the ridges and sky closer to the car, and by doing so has obscured the church building, the people, the vehicles in the parking lot, or whatever else was distracting from Roth's composition.

Also, a note about that chain-link fence along the landscaped median behind Dean. Other historic photographs reveal the chain link fencing and shrubbery weren't installed on the divider until the mid-1970s when the divider was narrowed substantially and the classic Art Deco lamp posts were replaced with featureless lightweight aluminum utility poles.

So, Roth's dramatic photo of Dean driving the Porsche at speed is actually a composite of photographs from different decades, chopped and airbrushed and blended together, created by an unknown retouch artist many years after Roth's death in 1962.


Spanielman said...

Sorry, I meant "James Dean -- On the Road to Salinas" by author Lee Raskin, of course. Warren Beath wrote "The Death of James Dean".