The American film actor-director, Dennis Hopper, was closely associated with the promises and failures of the 1960s counterculture. Countless admirers recognize him from films such as Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and Rebel without a Cause to name a few. Though, not many are aware that he was a dedicated artist who took up photography from 1961 through 1967, documenting America’s social and cultural landscape.
This summer, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) will show Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album from June 26, 2014 through October 19, 2014. The exhibition assembles more than 400 of his photographs that were uncovered after Hopper’s death from prostate cancer in 2010. The RA will highlight exemplary portraiture of actors and artists, including Paul Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Tina Turner, and Andy Warhol, together with social, political and historical photographs like Martin Luther King’s march in 1965.
Dennis Hopper gained his status as a cult director of the road film, Easy Rider (1969), while maintaining his reputation as an edgy character with spirited performances in The American Friend (1977), Blue Velvet (1986) and Hoosiers among other film roles.
However, before his climb to Hollywood prominence, he encapsulated the “establishment-busting” temperament of the 60s in photographs that extend from Los Angeles and Tijuana to Harlem. The Lost Album was found in a closet after Hopper’s death, and contained over 400 black and white images taken with a Nikon camera and a 28-millimeter lens that he received from his first wife, Brooke Hayward.
The actor carried his camera everywhere during the 60s. Between the two, they were well connected, and their home in the hills of Los Angeles became a gathering point for artists, writers, musicians and other creative minds.
His raw, uncropped photographs brought to light casual portraiture of artists such as Roy Lichtenstein sitting on his studio floor, a seated Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg sticking out his tongue and a smiling Andy Warhol in dark glasses behind a flower. The photographs also encapsulate Paul Newman’s nude body cast in patterns from shadows of a wire fence and The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and James Brown. Hopper’s photographic collection also contained images of hippie girls, Mexican bullfights, Hells Angels, the Apollo 11 lunar landing and advertisements for soft drinks, newspapers and cars such as American Pop artist, Ed Ruscha in front of a “Printing” sign in 1964.
To the press, the actor claimed to be introverted, and for him, taking photographs, enabled him to hold the people around him at a distance. Hopper favored natural light and full-frame images, which enhanced his straight approach, and produced poignant images as Beverly Renee on Bed, or Hayward as she looked teasingly from behind cat’s-eye sunglasses, displaying a crown with an attached price tag.
The actor trailed Martin Luther King, Jr during his 1965 march from Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama. With his camera in hand, Hopper summarized the commitment and passion of the pursuit of civil rights, from Martin Luther King addressing a captivated audience to young black men holding American flags in the air. These powerful images, along with many other moments that Hopper encapsulated, established a birds-eye view of the 60s that coalesced humanistic sanguinity with “political idealism with California cool.”
Hopper took a respite from photography, until the early 80s, when he produced abstract images and fashion shots in color, together with Polaroid shots of Los Angeles graffiti and color photographs of artistic luminaries that still have not seen the light of day.
Dennis Hopper’s photographs can also be viewed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Carnegie Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art.
By Dawn Levesque