“Don’t go without me, okay. I want to get a picture.” Photo Journalist (Dennis Hopper), Apocalypse Now.
This collection of photography is a striking record by the right man, in the right place, at the right time. This is like entering a Being John Malkovich-style portal, to travel through the 60s and see everything from Dennis Hopper’s eyes. What a journey it was and what a time to be taking photographs. His interest in the fringes of society became the culture at large, but Dennis Hopper was there, as in there… Man.
In 1958, Dennis Hopper was a young actor inspired after working with James Dean. Due to his difficult behaviour on set, Hopper had a falling out with the film’s director Henry Hathaway and was effectively an exile from Hollywood for several years (he would work again with Hathaway twice more, including on the classic John Wayne western True Grit years later). He became lost. He had an interest in photography (encouraged by Dean) and when his then wife presented him with the gift of a camera, he put all of his creative energy into taking photographs. This Lost Album is a visual diary of his lost years, his travels and the people who influenced him. These photographs (429 out of the 18000+ that he took) trace his path as he develops ideas and digests his times which were later chiselled into his magnum opus; the sixties counter culture classic, Easy Rider. The camera also proved to be a good crutch for a naturally shy man to lean on and relate to people with. Later he would use other kinds of crutches.
There are some pieces of serious photojournalism such as what he captured during the pivotal Selma to Montgomery civil rights march. “What are you doing day after tomorrow?” is how Marlon Brando invited Hopper, only to face biting police dogs and bombings the next day. There is hope. There is danger. Unease at an uncertain future. To attend a civil rights march in Alabama in 1965 is not for those with a faint heart. A highlight is an iconic image of a strong Martin Luther King Jr. in his prime delivering his “How Long, Not Long.” speech.
These authentic photos are the view from an insider. In 1963 Hopper visited a then barely known art studio in New York called The Factory. The resulting photos are fascinating, with a young undiscovered Andy Warhol surrounded by his Warhol Superstars. A very savvy art collector, Hopper purchased one of the first Campbell’s Soup Cans from Warhol for $75.
There are hypnotic images of the 60s sub cultures. The Band’s classic The Weight kicks in sentimentally on cue as you enter room 2 to stunning photos of the original hippies at The Human Be-In. Kicking off what would become 1967’s summer of love in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. One shot shows Timothy Leary in action onstage (with Allen Ginsberg just behind him), where he first uttered his famous phrase, “Turn on, tune in and drop out” to the hippies of San Francisco. Another series of photos are a strangely tender look at the notorious Hells Angels at their zenith. These authentic photographs are taken before both groups were brutally consumed into a banal stereotype to dress up as, for dingy costume parties (not to mention turned into hit TV shows and video games). This is when they are fresh and their style is cutting edge.
Dennis Hopper is key in the bridge between Golden Age Hollywood and New Hollywood, where mainstream cinema embraced experimental techniques honed in Europe with movements like Neo-Realism and the New Wave. Easy Rider (which makes a glorious appearance here in the form of a 2 minute clip midway through the exhibition) really did change mainstream cinema forever, paving the way for the Scorceses, John Boormans and beyond. This exhibition is a coming of age and an exploration of subconscious themes such as freedom, humanity and outsiders which lead Hopper to Easy Rider.
Hopper displays a sensitivity not usually associated with his wild man image. There are warm shots of smiling children everywhere, from Harlem to Tijuana, candid shots of his wife and one intimate and sensual shot of a young Paul Newman (in his Cool Hand Luke greatness). Known more for his reputation as a rebel and a trouble maker, Dennis Hopper’s talent burned intermittently but burned bright. At the time, he thought that these photographs would be his only lasting work and so they have a certain intensity.
A small but important aspect to this exhibition is that these photos are the vintage prints from the time period rather than reproductions; these are the ones that Hopper himself handled and placed in order (which has been replicated to his original instructions). They are in great shape considering that they were left in a random box for nearly 45 years.
His more abstract and street photos are more of a mixed bag, with some real gems mixed in with some more youthful and enthusiastic work.
Despite some of the darker moments (seeing Kennedy’s funeral through images on an early television set or the on the ground at the tense L.A. riots give a glimpse into the darkness to come) this is an inspiring collection that makes you want to go out and live a fuller life. I left this exhibition with a feeling of freedom and hope. My Instagram feed will never compare but I’ll give it a go. You should too.
“We blew it.” Captain America (Peter Fonda), Easy Rider.
Dennis Hopper The Lost Album is on at The Royal Academy until 19th Oct. Standard tickets £10. For more information go to – royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/22