Friday, February 22, 2013

The Well-Known 'James Dean' Photographer Roy Schatt

Roy Schatt was born on November 21, 1909 in New York. 

Roy Schatt is World Famous for his series of photographs of actor James Dean, most notable being the 'Torn Sweater' photos. The photographs were taken before Dean became a star.

Educated in New York, he started as an illustrator for government agencies in the 1930s, under the presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt.

Roy Schatt
Schatt took pictures of a wide variety of actors

But he soon turned photography from a hobby into a new career, and was influenced by Eric Saloman's work in 35mm, available-light photography.He also studied acting, and directed shows during World War II, while with the US Army's special forces in India.  After the war he went to New York.

In addition, before he became a photographer, Roy Schatt studied painting with N.C. Wyeth and worked as a graphic artist for BBD&O on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. Living in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Schatt met Jose Quintero who was directing Tennessee Williams' Summer & Smoke at the Circle-in-the-Square Playhouse. Roy's portraits of the cast went on display in the lobby and Harpers Bazaar and Vogue featured his portrait of Geraldine Page. During this period, Roy's numerous subjects included the likes of Rod Steiger, Patricia Neal, Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn and Ben Gazzara. Schatt's subjects also include Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Billie Holiday, Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, Tennessee Williams and many others. Although he is famous for photographing actors and other celebrities, Roy Schatt's work is the antithesis of glamour photography. He always sought out the "unguarded moment." Schatt was also an actor and his emotionally exposed style led to him being called the "Method" photographer because of the many parallels with the revolution that was then sweeping the acting world. Famed teacher Lee Strasberg recognized this kinship when he named Schatt theOfficial Photographer of the Actor's Studio.

The James Dean pictures are undoubtedly the crowning achievement of Schatt's career. As he recalled many year's later, Schatt was mesmerized from almost the first moment they met: "He was a squinty schlump of a person all bent over. Then Dean suddenly got up and this ugly person became a dream, an Adonis who started to dance around the room. It was a transition I couldn't believe." Dean studied photography with Schatt and they became close friends.

During the course of their yearlong friendship, Schatt and Dean formed a perfect photographer/subject relationship that resulted in many of the most popular images of Dean. "Dean was a method actor," Schatt explained, "being an actor, I was able to recognize that theatrical instinct. I would direct and provoke and the scenes would become inspiration. But the photograph still must be honest and interesting beyond the performance."

Roy Schatt was Dean's friend and photography teacher during the final year and half of his life. During that time, his camera captured the many facets of Dean's complex personality. The 15 photographs contained in the "JAMES DEAN NEW YORK 1954 - IMAGES BY ROY SCHATT" portfolios, which include 6 of the famous "Torn Sweater" series, some of the most unforgettable portraits of the actor. They present rare glimpses of Dean during photo sessions with Schatt, relaxing at home, on the rehersal set, and on the streets of New York, the city he called his home.

He said of Dean:

"I knew James Dean… as a friend and as a student. He was a disrupter of norms, a bender of rules, a disquieter of calm. Through these photographs I hope to transmit a glimpse of his most insistent, and perhaps eternal, presence."

Besides his famous pictures of Dean, he also took some amazing shots of Steve McQueen.  According to Steve McQueen Online:
Back in July, 2005 I contacted Elaine Schatt (Roy's widow), interested in learning the story behind Roy's relationship with Steve and the famous pictures he took of him.

Elaine put me in contact with Roy's close friend Franklin, with the following recommendation:

Franklin is a 20 year plus dear friend to Roy much like Jimmy (Dean) was. He helps me with my computer work and sales and knows every story from the old days as he and Roy spent years together reading, shooting and talking about the old days.

Franklin was kind enough to share his very clear memories of his conversations with Roy on the subject of Steve McQueen, and they can be read below.

Roy did not talk as much about Steve as he did Jimmy (Dean) but Steve was a good pal of Roy's as well. Steve showed up at Roy's door knocking right after Jimmy died, he apparently had a tough time with Jimmy's death and wanted to see Roy's studio as he knew Jimmy and Roy were good friends.

Roy actually did not like Steve when he first met him, he felt like he was trying to be Jimmy and it turned Roy off. To the point that Roy, after reading some lines with Steve (Roy was also a method coach as well as a photographer, Lee Stradburg (Actors Studio) titled Roy the "method photographer"). Roy told Steve he did not think he had a career in acting, WOW was Roy wrong and much like Jimmy, Steve changed Roy's mind, literally a week later Steve came back and blew Roy away with a monologue. Well, that was it and they became friends.

Roy shot all the images of Steve in the studio and in the studio back garden. The ones of Steve in front of the drop cloth were posed for headshots for Steve. But the candid photos of Steve with the sweater on were taken when the 2 of them were just hanging out together. Like the SMOKE shot attached. Steve frequented the studio and read with Roy over the years. He introduced Ali (MacGraw) to Roy when they first started dating. After that Roy and Steve lost touch until many years later, Steve called Roy when he was not well and talked to Roy on the phone for 4 hours. Roy adored Steve as much as he did Jimmy, and Roy does not like actors in general, but obviously these were 2 of the all time greats.

In January 1955, Edward Steichen chose a Roy Schatt photograph as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. His work has been exhibited at the Staley-Wise Gallery in Soho, Manhattan's ICP, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC and the Chicago Art Institute. Roy’s second book "faces of the 50’s" is in it’s final stages and is currently being reviewed by several major domestic and international publishers.

In 1991, he sued the James Dean Foundation after photos from a 1982 book of his images turned up on posters, calendars and fridge magnets. He received a $200,000 payment.

Jan 10, 2006, The Lowe Gallery in Santa Monica featured some great photographs from Roy Schatt and James Dean in a show called 'The Mirrored Psyche.'

Mr. Schatt died Saturday, May 4, 2002 in his Manhattan home from congestive heart failure. He was 92.
Schatt’s work has been exhibited at Manhattan's International Center for Photography, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, the Chicago Institute of Art and many other museums. In January 1955, Edward Steichen’s choice for the Museum of Modern Art's collection was a Roy Schatt photograph.

WESTWOOD GALLERY NYC is the exclusive representation of the estate of photographer Roy Schatt (1909-2002) in collaboration with Ron Cayen Inc.

Here are photos of Dean and the last one shows Schatt with one of his many photos of him.

Here is Schatt taken by James Dean.

Images of Bille Holiday.

Steve McQueen


William Bast
Patricia Neal.

Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzara
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.


  1. I had no idea he had studied under NC Wyeth - great post on a very talented photographer.

  2. Hi, my name is David, thks for site and all info, pics, great site

  3. I had written Roy and Elaine and asked about his major photography influences. I sent some music on tape as well and had gotten a few letters and postcards in return..I was poor then and couldn't afford to come to New York now I live here and all the Greats are gone...