Hopper’s vision of an American in flux – torn between Hollywood and the acid tests

Me outside the RA Hopper show. Photograph by Hattie Miles
Me outside the RA Hopper show. Photograph by Hattie Miles

After a four month run at the Royal Academy an utterly intriguing exhibition of photographs by the late American actor, film director and artist Dennis Hopper closed at the weekend. It was called The Lost Album and featured more than 400 original prints of photographs taken by Hopper between 1961 and 1967. These images had last been seen at his first major exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Centre in Texas in 1970. They were rediscovered, packed away in a series of old boxes, after his death from cancer in 2010.

The RA exhibition was the first time these photographs – haphazardly printed and still on their original rather tatty mounts – had been seen in the UK. They gave a new view of the artistic output of a man known as a maverick. Capable of great performances but dismissed by many as mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Dennis Hopper
Dennis Hopper

Hopper had originally arrived in Hollywood in the mid 1950s. At nineteen he was appearing alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and later Giant. He got on well with Dean – in fact it was Dean who first got him into photography. Hopper had considered himself to be the next big movie acting sensation until he arrived on set and actually saw Jimmy Dean in action. Suddenly a whole new word of dramatic opportunities had opened up before him.

By all accounts Dean’s tragic death left Hopper bereft. He had listened long and hard to this mercurial stars advice but found some resistance from the old guard when  he tried to improvise on set.  Soon his massive ego, loose-tongue and penchant for guns, booze and drugs got him blacklisted. Big shot director Henry Hathaway showed him the door in no uncertain way after Hopper tried to engage in a power struggle over the delivery of his lines in the 1958 film From Hell To Texas. One scene had to be re-shot 80 times before Hopper stormed off the set and Hathaway made it clear that he needn’t come back. The director later explained: “He (Hopper)  figured he was the greatest young actor in the world. Well, he wasn’t. He was a headstrong kid, full of dope and bullshit. He was a self-styled enfant terrible and a pain in the ass.” For years no studio would touch him but eventually John Wayne (whose influence outweighed just about everyone else) insisted that Hopper be hired for The Sons of Katie Elder. He managed to behave himself and was subsequently signed up for True Grit.

The content of the RA show proved fascinating –  a unique visual diary created by a man who had an insider view of both traditional Hollywood and the counter culture of the 1960s. The presentation though raised, for me at least, a few questions.

The gelatin-silver vintage black and white prints – in both portrait and landscape formats – were mainly small (9.5inches x 6.5 inches). They were exhibited at eye-level as either single images or sometimes two or three deep in an extended strip around the walls of the RA’s huge Burlington Gardens galleries.

Superficially this was good. It gave the show the slightly retro, do-it-yourself feel of a sixties hipster project and was, I am sure, intended to give an added sense of authenticity to the project.  In doing so however it failed to make the most of some truly extraordinary photographs – giving the stars of the show what amounted to equal billing with far too many also-rans.

Personally I would have lost about a quarter of the prints in this exhibition and would have had the best of Hopper’s photographs reprinted on a much larger scale. For it can’t be overstated just how incredible many of these images are. Hopper knew everyone. He effectively had a backstage pass to a period of extraordinary social change.

With his Nikon F around his neck he took portraits of actors and artists like Paul Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jane Fonda as well as many of the other exciting new performers, artists, poets and musicians of the day. He photographed his family and friends and captured counter culture’s main  players from the Hells Angels to the hippy gatherings. The show takes in figures from the Beat and Peace movements – radical writers and thinkers like Michael McLure and Timothy Leary. Hopper’s photographs are often little more than casual snaps of his friends at play but they catch the zeitgeist with rare perfection and the fun is counterbalanced by images of tense and volatile political events like the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery at the height of the African- American Civil Rights Movement.

Technically the results range from seriously good to decidedly unremarkable, but even the most mediocre images are of important moments in time. For that reason alone they should be cherished and their impact optimised. Intriguingly when Hopper began to work on the film Easy Rider  – eventually released in 1969, the same year as True Grit – he simply stopped taking photographs. It seems that photography had served its purpose and he now had other creative outlets. “I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive,” he would later say.  However, the feel of the images from The Lost Album and the sense of time and place they convey remained noticeably present in the visual language of Easy Rider. To underline this point excerpts from the film were shown within the RA  show.

It’s strange to think that, had things been just a little different, Dennis Hopper could have gone down in movie history as one of the last old school stars of the big Hollywood westerns. He would instead become defined by the drug-soaked feel of Easy Rider and his brooding on-screen performances in films like Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet. This image was helped of course by the fact that off-screen he could be just as weird as any of his characters. Hopper’s excesses were legendary. It has long been rumoured that at one point he took so much LSD that he completely forgot that he had married Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips. Not surprisingly perhaps the marriage lasted only eight days.

The Lost Album offered a chance to glimpse the world of a restless soul with friends in the right places but demons that meant he would always be an outsider.  Hopper’s Nikon with its 28mm lens offered a way in and a way out. He could observe and document a world that was shifting and tilting in a way that had never been seen before. Yet the camera also provided a barrier behind which he could hide. The result – an astonishing slice of 1960s Americana – is extremely interesting and I can’t help feeling that it deserves to be seen again one day but in a form that fully highlights its strengths.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

One thought on “Hopper’s vision of an American in flux – torn between Hollywood and the acid tests”

  1. What a shame I missed that exhibition. It wasn’t well publicised. I met him at a book signing in Tokyo, and I probably have many of those prints in the book – published 1996 (I think) It’s somewhere in this ramshackle room. Hopper signed it and I shook his hand.

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