In the Middle of Everything: Dennis Hopper and “The Lost Album”

An American photojournalist gone insane in the middle of the jungle, waiting for the crew of a boat with arms wide open: to me this character from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is still the most iconic among those Dennis Hopper portrayed onscreen. Coincidentally or not, besides being a director and a painter, the actor also had a past as a photographer. The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which is on display until 19 October 2014, is here to reveal it.

In co-operation with The Dennis Hopper Art Trust, curator Petra Giloy-Hirtz managed to get together 400 vintage prints found in boxes after Hopper’s death in 2010 and recreated his 1970 first solo installation at Fort Worth Art Center Museum (Texas).

Saying that Hopper was a prolific photographer is not completely true: although from 1961 to 1967 he took something like 18,000 photos, he then stopped using the camera. As his own words quoted on the walls of the Royal Academy tell the visitors, photography was just a phase in Hopper’s multi-faceted career. “I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive. I started at eighteen taking pictures. I stopped at thirty-one…”

Dennis Hopper, “Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt”, 1964

Dennis Hopper, “Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt”, 1964. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

“These represent the years from twenty-five to thirty-one, 1961 to 1967. I didn’t crop my photos. They are full frame natural light tri-X. I went under contract to Warner Brothers at eighteen. I directed Easy Rider at thirty-one. I married Brooke at twenty-five and got a good camera and could afford to take pictures and print them. They were only creative outlet I had for these years until Easy Rider. I never carried a camera again.”

Dennis Hopper, “Roy Lichtenstein”, 1964

Dennis Hopper, “Roy Lichtenstein”, 1964. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns are only a few of the artists that Hopper knew and framed with his camera. Intimate pictures or portraits taken in public, they were however only one subject among Hopper’s wider interest in what was going on in the 1960s. Again, in his words: “I wanted to document something. I wanted to leave something that I thought would be a record of it, whether it was Martin Luther King, the hippies, or whether it was the artists.”

Dennis Hopper, “Paul Newman”, 1964

Dennis Hopper, “Paul Newman”, 1964. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

As you easily realise while walking through the rooms of the exhibition, Los Angeles in that period was the place to be in the US. Featuring an active art scene, the film industry, the turmoil of the music, fashion and architecture, the city was also the epicentre of social tensions and clashes between young people and the police because of strict curfew laws for nightclubs.

If many of Hopper’s photographs of artists were commissioned for invitations to openings at the L.A.-based Ferus Gallery, his eye also caught a wide range of themes and events unrelated to the world of “rich and famous”. These instant portraits range from the members of the motorcycle club Hells Angels, to life in Durango, Mexico; from the homeless in Downtown Los Angeles, to the Civil Rights Movement March; and from a quiet and lonely Mexican cemetery to a tense bullfight or the chaotic riots on Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood.

Dennis Hopper, “Double Standard”, 1961

Dennis Hopper, “Double Standard”, 1961. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy also features excerpts from some of his films. A few final quotes close “The Lost Album” and link the moving images and the motorcycle as a symbol of what he was chasing with his art. “The movie to me was about freedom and the responsibility that you have of being free. I was involved in the hippie movement and the free speech movement… I was never a biker, even though [they] were a symbol of freedom to me. Bikers were the modern cowboys.”