A lost album of Dennis Hopper’s rare sixties photographs are to go on display in the UK at the Royal Academy for the first time, writes Catherine McCabe
Depending on your film tastes, actor and director Dennis Hopper can be one of three things – a genius, a borderline madman, or a vaguely recognisable face.
Early in his career, he was cast in supporting roles opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, but later became the go-to guy for gun-toting villains with a few screws loose in films like From Hell to Texas (1958) and True Grit (1969), and his career defining turn as sadistic gangster Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986).
Often hailed as one of Hollywood’s outlaws, Hopper’s reputation as an unreliable hellraiser with a heavy dependence on cocaine regularly cost him film roles, resulting in an unpredictable career. One of his most memorable performances, that of a fast-talking, drugged-out photojournalist in Apocalypse Now is a curious window into another period in the actor’s life – the era of 1961 to 1967, when he was rarely seen without a camera around his neck.
When Hopper’s first wife Brooke Hayward gave him a Nikon camera for his birthday, the actor was at an impasse in his career. He had failed to live up to early promise of being ‘the next James Dean,’ and was struggling to find his creative outlet. He poured his energy into photography – making use of the free-spirited celebrity crowd that surrounded him at the time.
Now the photographs from these years can be seen on display in London for the first time in an exhibition at the Royal Academy, titled Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album. These black and white photographs –featuring portraits of Jane Fonda relaxing at her wedding with husband Roger Vadim, and a nude Paul Newman with the sun beating down on his back – were very nearly destroyed by Hopper. His curator friend Walter Hopps salvaged the selection and when he passed in 2005, the actor threw the returned selection into a cupboard, where they were left untouched, gathering dust with the Christmas decorations until Hopper’s death from prostate cancer in 2010.
In the 60s, Hopper was a part of the LA Ferus Gallery crowd. His home on the Sunset Strip was a place where artists, writers and musicians like Andy Warhol and Rauchenburg could be found discussing the next phase of the Pop Art movement. In one photograph, we find Warhol, art dealer Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman all hanging out in New York, lost in a plume of smoke. But was Hopper a photographer, or just a man with a camera at the right time?
Petra Giloy-Hirtz, curator of The Lost Album exhibition, believes there is more to Hopper’s images than scene and celebrity, ‘people think that he just had his camera around his neck and that he was just interested in his family and his friends, but he did want to leave a record of his time. ‘He was interested in music, the whole counterculture and politics, not only the glamorous side of society. There’s a wide range of things that shows that he took his photography very seriously,’ she says.
Before landing a supporting role in Rebel Without a Cause, Hopper was passionate about painting – and always had a deep respect for art, ‘he loved abstract expressionism, Richard Diebenkorn was his favourite artist. The beautiful thing is what Dennis Hopper sees in the daily profane things, he sees art,’ Petra explains.
In The Lost Album selection – we see the dancing hippy idealists of the early 60s, the menace of the Hells Angels – but also we find Mexican bullfights, and children walking the streets Harlem. As much as Hopper was living in the carefree 60s, his photos suggest a sense of detachment, a need to preserve the rebellion in the air. He claimed he was a shy person, and that the camera served as a way of distancing himself from the action, ‘I was busy taking a picture, so I didn’t have to deal with them.’
Despite being caught up in a maelstrom of alcohol and cocaine abuse, it was Hopper’s considered approach to the madness that made up his world that led him to join forces with Peter Fonda to write and direct Easy Rider (1969), a dope-fuelled biker movie that captured the angry energy of youth culture at the time. ‘Easy Rider was never a motorcycle movie to me,’ Hopper once said of the film that would make his career, ‘a lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country.’
Once he’d gotten a taste for directing, Hopper retired his Nikon, scarcely taking it out again until the 80s – when he began to create big format glossy colour imagery and polaroids of the peeling surfaces on LA’s graffitied walls. Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album at the Royal Academy encapsulates a time of experimentation in Hopper’s life, a time before the industry glory of Easy Rider, or the chilling psychosis of Frank Booth – they are tokens of a burgeoning filmmaker finding his voice – and recording the good times along the way.
Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album will take place from 26 June to 19 October 2014 at the
Royal Academy, royalacademy.org.uk