“I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive”
He might be known as the ultimate Hollywood hell-raiser, cavorting on set with James Dean and living fast, hard and wild, but Dennis Hopper was also an accomplished photographer, snapping everyone from Martin Luther King to Paul Newman and Jane Fonda. Some of those photographs are currently on display at the Royal Academy; the so-called ‘Lost Album’ providing a snapshot into Hopper’s life in the 60s but also offers insight to a Hollywood dominated by artists and creators. Hopper was a great collector and patron, buying early work from artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein. In fact, many of the artists and their now famous canvases feature in Hopper’s photos.
All the photos were taken between 1961 and 1967; Hopper started the collection when he was 25 and continued photographing until he directed Easy Rider at the age of 31. In the exhibition’s opening blurb, he comments that ‘they were the only creative outlet I had for these years until Easy Rider. I never carried a camera again’. Most of the photos have a familiar and easy intimacy and feel (in the main) spontaneous and unstaged. You can imagine Hopper persuading friends to pose, of having the ability to put even the most unwilling subjects at ease.
The ‘lost’ title, however, is a little misleading. These photos weren’t discovered tucked away in a dusty trunk after Hopper’s death – Hopper actually oversaw (and personally selected the images for) an exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum in 1970. The RA has replicated that original show, hanging the small, black-and-white prints in the same layout. Only a few of the original images are missing, represented by blank squares of card. Perhaps echoing the photographer’s attitude to his prints, they mounted on card and are hung in large glass cases. Not for Hopper individual frames, this is a collection that – when examined individually is, in the main – unremarkable. The photos resonate when viewed as a collection, capturing an oft-overlooked sub-section of Hollywood, framed against important social and cultural events, including Hells Angels bikers, street life in Harlem, protesters on the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the Sunset Boulevard riots (1967) and TV stills of the moon landing and Kennedy’s funeral. Those TV stills, which close the exhibition, feel remarkably contemporary, despite their obviously date-specific content.
According to the intro, Hopper didn’t crop his photos, preferring to shoot swiftly and with intention. He clearly wasn’t a fan of editing either – this is a large, sprawling body of work (there’s more than 400 photos in the RA exhibition). In this case, the quantity stamps out the quality. As a visitor, it’s difficult to pick out the key images as there’s just so many too look at. As the FT’s Frances Hodgson observed, in 1970, 400 Hopper photos would’ve felt exciting but now they just feel like they should have been curated with a more discriminating eye. It’s not self-indulgent, but it does diminish the impact of Dennis Hopper, photographer.
But at the same time, there seems to be a tangible and poignant link to him through the images. Frayed, in some cases folded and dog-eared, they encapsulate Dennis Hopper, director, the visionary who dreamt up Easy Rider and Dennis Hopper, actor, who starred in Rebel Without A Cause, Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now. Whilst many of the portraits are interesting but unremarkable, it’s the social documentary-style images that resonate. Hopper had a knack for observation that might not be comparable to Cartier-Bresson, but is certainly in a similar vein. His photos of the Hells Angels feel instinctive, and are taken without judgement, fed by curiosity and a desire to understand. Hopper was both of his time and ahead of it.
‘The Lost Album’ may not fulfil one of Hopper’s greatest desires – according to his daughter Marin Hopper, when he died “he really wanted to be remembered as a photographer first and foremost… he told me near the end that he wanted to be taken seriously as a photographer and be in collections and museums” – but it does make the case for a thoughtful and intelligent image maker who was able to record his first-hand experiences of America and use the ruminations to create some of Hollywood’s most memorable films and characters.
Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the RA until 19 October 2014