The Lost Photographer: Dennis Hopper’s Photographs at the Royal Academy

Uneasy Rider: Dennis Hopper’s photographs were taken at a time when he was blacklisted by Hollywood

Given how his hell-raising antics in many ways came to overshadow the image of his career on both sides of the camera (they certainly influenced many of his performances and casting decisions), it might surprise those who go to Dennis Hopper’s photographs at the Royal Academy show to see how little of ‘wild man Hopper’ is evident in the work. This is the actor after all who was cast — after a long period away from Hollywood – as the nitrous oxide-guzzling, unhinged kingpin Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet because, in his own words: “I am Frank Booth”. This is the man who once pulled a knife on actor Rip Torn – only to have Torn yank it out of his hand and turn it on him. Apart from Blue Velvet, any Hopper ‘best of’ list would surely lean towards the more extreme performances, such as his strung-out turn in Apocalypse Now as a deranged photographer (drawing on his actual experiences- it is tempting to think), or a younger generation might connect more with his bug-eyed, bomb expert-turned-terrorist in Speed.

Yet, instead of a set of blurred shots capturing crazy nights, drugs and guns, Hopper’s photographs showcase a striking sense of composition; real forethought in the framing of people, landscapes and architecture. The visual style is surprisingly modest, and Hopper himself is hardly in any of them. Though some are playful and irreverent, there is not much of a sense of these being rushed, on-the-fly street photographs, though Hopper certainly was on the move a lot during this period all across the streets of the US, and beyond in Mexico. They are clearly the work of someone giving careful thought to what he was seeing and doing.

The exhibition, titled “The Lost Album”, showcases more than 400 of the actor’s favourite photographs. All were taken between 1961-67, when Hopper was effectively blacklisted by Hollywood. They were exhibited once before, in 1970 at the Fort Worth Art Centre in Texas. But after this, they were boxed up by Hopper and more or less forgotten until his daughter Marin Hopper discovered the boxes after her father’s death in 2010. The exhibition actually only shows a small percentage of the photography work Hopper generated in this time period, in total he took around 18,000 pictures with his Nikon F.

Hopper’s work can be enjoyed as a simple, personal visual diary of the diversity of the American landscape in the 1960s. Hopper seems to have been the roaming sort, taking his camera from the LA art scene to Montgomery Alabama, and then on to Mexico. Architecture seems to have interested him, and there are many carefully composed shots of some of LA’s more eye-catching buildings like the Frank Lloyd Wright house. The abstract photographic potential of buildings and landscapes was also something Hopper was clearly drawn to, with much of this work focused on isolating specific elements: shadows, patterns and consumer logos. The more abstract photographs are perhaps the most surprising of the show. But if you want “Americana”, you could do worse than Hopper’s appealingly cluttered, wide angle photograph of gas station signs and traffic through both a car’s front and rear view mirrors in “Double Standard” from 1961.

The cultural richness and diversity of American art scene in the 1960s, particularly in LA, also comes through; a melting pot of raw artistic talent, showbiz, surface-level sheen, and undeniable glamour. Hopper seems to have been in with the right crowd: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenburg, Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp and David Hockney all were captured by his lens. Hopper himself had an interest in art: as a collector, painter and sculptor. Surprisingly few film stars feature, but the effortlessly handsome Paul Newman and a newly-wed Jane Fonda turn up. Hopper had his own milestone to plant in the history of the American arts with his 1969 directorial debut Easy Rider, which helped jumpstart up the US indie film scene as Hollywood reeled from falling revenues and anti monopoly legislation, with TV eating into their box office. But this would come after he hung up the camera.

The creative waves of 1960s America were counterbalanced by incredible turmoil, which seems to have drawn Hopper out of LA. One particular section of the show is devoted to his photographs from the time spent tracking Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery march: black faces framed against American flags, tears gas clouds, burly cops. It makes a certain sense that Hopper would go to where the outsiders were gathering; even before Easy Rider immortalised him as the wandering American loner searching for an ideal country that probably never existed, his role in  Rebel Without a Cause alongside James Dean had been a lesson in how rebellion could be an art form. Though it is unlikely he shared their particular brand of outsider politics, Hopper also took his camera along to Hell’s Angel’s gatherings, and it is tempting to see the appeal of the freedom offered by the heavy-duty Harley bleeding into Easy Rider. Hopper, like the bikers, had been drawn to the image of freedom offered by ‘the West’, having been born in Kansas and starred in several westerns.

Viewers are well advised to pick up the gallery guide when visiting, as it contains an excellent essay by Andrea Tarsia, useful for those wanting to go beyond the chronological start and end of the gallery. There is background information on how James Dean was influential encouraging Hopper to experiment with photography, and how Hopper’s time on the set of The Sons of Katie Elder in Durango, Mexico, where some of the show’s photographs were taken, gave him the first inspirations to start preparing the meta-western The Last Movie – his 1971 directorial effort that was a commercial and critical disaster and again led to Hopper falling outside the Hollywood system. Many of the faces from the LA art scene that Hopper captured with his camera are also given a backstory by Tarsia,

Tarsia suggests Hopper’s work be viewed through the lens of the American tradition that spans the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, Robert Frank and his record of life on the road in The Americans, and the street and social landscapes photography of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Tarsia also notes the importance of Easy Rider as epitomising “A new cinematic genre — the road movie — in which life on the open road both defines a quintessential American experience and symbolises an escape from it.”

She places the film in the same ranks as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) as launching what has been called the New American Hollywood of the 1970s. Easy Rider stood out through its frequent use of jump cuts and flashbacks, the fact that it featured explicit drug taking, and boasted a popular rock soundtrack. Given the photographs that have come before it, it feels right that the Royal Academy’s Hopper show ends with projected extracts of that now iconic film on the gallery wall, Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their low-slung bikes along the empty highways. It is tempting to see Easy Rider as the logical endpoint of that hunger to wander, to search, that Dennis Hopper’s photographs evoke.

The Lost Photographer: Dennis Hopper’s Photographs at the Royal Academy
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