Dennis Hopper’s photography comes to the RA

Rebel with a lens

Published 16 June 2014

Dennis Hopper was the epitome of 1960s American counter-culture. As an exhibition of the actor and director’s photographs comes to the RA, Jonathan Romney assesses this diverse body of work to reveal an astute chronicler of the art, celebrity and tense American politics of the period.

  • From the Summer 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    If you remember the 1960s, the cliché goes, then you weren’t there. Dennis Hopper had more reason than most people to forget that period, given his penchant for fast living, and the intensity with which he crammed so many roles into a single decade – filmmaker, actor, photographer, face on the scene. But he was there for sure, and busy documenting 1960s America extensively, as shown in the Academy’s new exhibition of his black-and-white photography, ‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’.

    Hopper, who died in 2010, is best remembered as a screen villain, in particular his terrifying performance as the demonic hoodlum Frank in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Before that, Hopper had been widely known as the very incarnation of ’60s American counter-culture – the director and star of motorcycle road epic Easy Rider (1969), an unexpected box-office smash that momentarily seemed to prove that a generation of flaming youth had seized American cinema from the studio elders. That dream arguably died with Hopper’s follow-up, the free-form travelogue-cum-deconstructed-Western The Last Movie (1971), after which Hopper broke from directing films.

    Later he would return to the screen in the guise of a spectre from the past – notably, playing the babbling Vietnam photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). In his latter years, he successfully projected the persona of the unsinkable survivor, the suave elder statesman who had seen it all and had plenty of stories to tell in interviews – and who also had a savvy reputation as an erudite art collector.

    It would be easy to remember Dennis Hopper as primarily a wilder-than-life character rather than someone whose achievements added up to a coherent career. But there is a significant part of Hopper’s activity that is less widely known – his work as a photographer. His black-and-white images of America, created during an intensely productive period from 1961 to 1967, may well be seen by posterity as the firmest proof of a prodigious talent and an unerring eye for the spirit of an age.

  • Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman

    Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman, 1964.

    Photograph. 16.64 x 25.02 cm. The Hopper Art Trust. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

  • Collected under the title ‘The Lost Album’, Hopper’s 1960s photos were taken in black and white on a Nikon camera, using Kodak Tri-X film, and they comprise a capsule history of America’s most turbulent decade. Over 400 photos were unearthed after the artist’s death in 2010, having last been seen in an exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Centre Museum in 1970. They record Hopper’s travels and encounters through the ’60s, up to the shooting of Easy Rider, when he gave up still photography for the movie camera. The selection shows high life and low life, the private sphere and the very public. There are portraits of movie stars, pop groups, painters; tableaux of the hippie scene and the biker underground; reportage of civil rights meetings; sorties to Mexico; plus assorted abstract images that show an unfamiliar contemplative side to Hopper’s imagination.

    Born in Kansas in 1936, Hopper arrived in Hollywood in 1954 and briefly flourished as a screen actor, most famously acting with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). His rebellious streak caused him to fall foul of veteran director Henry Hathaway and left Hopper out of favour in Hollywood. In 1961 he married Brooke Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, and the couple’s Los Angeles home on North Crescent Heights Boulevard became a gathering spot for film people and artists alike, particularly artists associated with L.A.’s Ferus Gallery. It was Hayward who gave Hopper his Nikon in 1961, and for the next six years, he used it incessantly. Photography – always in black and white, after initial experiments with colour – soon became his new profession, his work appearing in publications as diverse as Vogue and Artforum, and in exhibitions such as a 1966 group show alongside Ed Ruscha and others at the Robert Fraser Gallery in London.

  • Dennis Hopper, Selma, Alabama (U.S. Historians)

    Dennis Hopper, Selma, Alabama (U.S. Historians), 1965.

    Photograph. 17.55 x 25.02 cm. The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. Organised in collaboration with The Hopper Art Trust.

  • Hopper’s photography covered a wide terrain, recording the essence of 1960s America much as Walker Evans had mapped the Depression and Robert Frank the 1950s. On one level, he was a documenter and celebrant of the counter-culture beau monde that he moved in. He took portraits of key West Coast bands – Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane – but these pictures, with their staged compositions, owe much to the language of rock photography already established by the likes of Gered Mankowitz. More striking is a shot from 1965, of Ike and Tina Turner arranged against the artworks and exotica of Hopper’s own house, the duo’s animation and Ike’s confrontational look to camera making the cluttered bric-a-brac seem like an explosive extension of their music. Another picture from 1964 has soul legend James Brown surrounded by fans in front of his private plane, under the logo ‘James Brown Productions’, showing the singer as both man and business phenomenon.

    Hopper sometimes flatters his subjects by turning them into gorgeous icons – notably a bare-chested Paul Newman, the shadow of a wire fence making him look as if he is trapped in a net. But his portraiture is at its best when presenting subjects who, one feels, he saw as his people – artists, bohemians, outsiders. There are, as you would expect, plenty of flower children here: the actor Robert Walker Jr appears shaggily bearded like a Greek philosopher after a night on peyote, a full-blown incarnation of hippiedom as early as 1964. The art-world photos are brilliant vignettes of people’s styles of self-presentation: Larry Bell poses with cigar, looking like a Pop Art gangster in front of two street adverts, as if he had installed them himself; Ed Ruscha, square-jawed in front of a neon sign, looks uncannily as though he is screen testing to play Hopper himself in a biopic. Perhaps the most telling of this selection shows a well groomed Robert Rauschenberg sticking his tongue out, pleased as punch: the artist as a smooth-suited business type, a prototype for the corporate lifestyle that Jeff Koons would advertise two decades later.

  • Dennis Hopper, Torn Poster (Elect)

    Dennis Hopper, Torn Poster (Elect), 1963.

    Photograph. 23.5 x 34.29 cm. The Hopper Art Trust. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. Organised in collaboration with The Hopper Art Trust.

  • Hopper is perhaps less confident when tackling large groups, or catching current affairs. His pictures of civil rights events catch striking faces in the crowd but don’t always carry a strong narrative charge; a notable exception, at a rally in Selma, Alabama, shows a cluster of bespectacled gents under the hand-drawn sign ‘U.S. HISTORIANS’ (1965). Also telling is a street scene in which a scowling line-up of burly white men, one holding a Confederate flag, prefigure the Southerners who turned lethally hostile towards Hopper and Peter Fonda at the end of Easy Rider. The photographer’s emergence as a film-maker is hinted at in one or two dynamic series that resemble successions of stills from a movie’s action sequence: a suite of bullfighting images, and some horseplay going on (we can’t quite tell how playful or malign it is) among a group of Hell’s Angels.

    It is in the use of walls and signs that the exhibition yields its biggest surprises, and reveals Hopper’s painterly sensibility (in an interview, he claimed, ‘I am an Abstract Expressionist and an Action Painter by nature’). Hopper’s interest in shooting flat-on, reducing depth of field so as to make the image ‘like a painting surface’, derived partly, he said, from living in Los Angeles: ‘I was very attracted to walls and the graffiti, because there’s only so much you can look at here.’ Hopper uses signage in a quintessentially Pop Art way, especially when incorporating it into his backdrops; among pictures taken at a billboard factory, painter James Rosenquist (a specialist in appropriating such smooth advertising images) is framed in dark glasses against a woman’s giant face placed on its side. A street scene – Downtown, Los Angeles (Comer & Doran) (1965) – shows leftovers of 1950s advertising, but resembles a geometric abstract painting, with no fewer than 11 clashing typefaces in different perspectives, and a woman’s two-dimensional head surveying it all from the frontage of a beauty school.

    The most surprising work in this mode comes from a rich vein of ‘found images’, little happenstance mundanities that Hopper turns into abstractions: cloth on a scaffolding, a closeup of blistered paint, ripped posters. The daubed portrait of a blonde woman peers from a mess of torn artwork; in Torn Poster (Elect) (1963) all that remains of a forgotten political candidate is the outline of a head, and letters from a Carnation milk logo where his face should be.

  • Dennis Hopper, James Brown

    Dennis Hopper, James Brown, 1964.

    Photograph. 24.64 x 17.2 cm. The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. Organised in collaboration with The Hopper Art Trust.

  • Many of Hopper’s photographs may strike us as historical documents first and constructed images second. But these more abstract pictures allow Hopper to stand back from the breathless rush of a decade; these images, in a long-standing Surrealist tradition of finding epiphanies in the banal, display a poetic concentration and a patient insightfulness that you don’t necessarily get from Hopper the often breathless movie director.

    The travelogue quality of Easy Rider, and its use of non-professionals encountered on the road, no doubt stemmed from Hopper’s experience as a photographer – his awareness of the primacy of being there and of collecting whatever attracted him along the way. And when Hopper eventually returned to directing with Out of the Blue (1980), nine years after The Last Movie, it was as much as a sociologist as anything, documenting generation clash in a drama about a punk girl and a disreputable father from another era, played by Hopper himself. He brought the same sociological perspective to Colors (1988), about L.A. gang wars.

    This comeback as a director was widely considered the sign of an indestructible, dauntless survivor. And yet there was no getting away from the fact that Hopper, after the ’60s, was also fated to be forever considered a sort of cultural ghost, the living incarnation of a lost era. So the pure Dennis Hopper, if you like, is the Hopper before Easy Rider’s rueful farewell to a decade, for it is in his ’60s photography that he is most vividly alert to the changes in his era and his nation. The fact that he uses black and white to shoot a period famed for its luridness gives these images a timeless sobriety, making them more alive today than if they had been tinted with the hues of the time. Unlike much photography of that era, these pictures don’t give us the sense of gazing into a distant past: they tell you that Hopper was there, and they make you feel that you’re there too.

    Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the RA from 26 June–19 October 2014.

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