Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is presented by the Royal Academy of Arts and were taken between 1961 and 1967 by the American actor, film director, and artist. These vintage black & white photographs have never been seen in the UK before.
Dennis Hopper was not a formally trained artist, but created paintings and assemblages, and throughout the 60s captured thousands of images on his ‘Nikon F’ with a 28mm lens given to him by his future wife Brooke Hayward. Hopper’s interest in photography was encouraged by James Dean on the set of ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in 1955.
The actor was under contract with Warner Brothers and considered the taking of photographs as a necessary creative outlet, stating: ‘I never made a cent from those photos. They cost me money but kept me alive’. In total the actor/photographer amassed over 18,000 photographs.
Hopper first presented 429 of these images at his inaugural exhibition at Fort Worth Art Centre, Texas, in 1970. Once the show was completed the photographs were boxed and stored, forgotten by all including the photographer it would seem; until Hopper’s death in 2010, when this ‘Lost Album’ – a window onto 60s America – was rediscovered.
The dark soul of the actor Hopper is not present in his photographic work. The photographer Hopper is intrigued by detail and the moment, and never sees his contemporaries as ‘stars’; but merely as people: Paul Newman sunbathes, Jane Fonda smokes, and Andy Warhol hides from the lens, with a mock sense of coyness.
Hopper had access to the ‘stars’ as a fellow actor, and spent time at Warhol’s Factory. The actor’s camera is always informal; spontaneous yet often exactingly shrewd. From Robert Rauschenberg to Martin Luther King; Hopper’s lens captured everything from hippy ‘happenings’ of the day; to the volatile exchanges of the Civil Rights Movement. The actor stated: ‘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 artist’.
Hopper also had an interest in the subtle details of the street; with many images of decaying objects gleaned from the topography of the city. A particular favourite of the photographer’s being the torn and overlaid poster; exemplifying the passing of time and the fleeting nature of fame – and also Hopper’s self-reflexive sense of humour.
Hopper’s exploration of counterculture Americana led to a growing involvement in the Los Angeles art scene with associates in Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, and an east coast Jasper Johns, and his own contemporary art collection.
Dennis Hopper began work on the film ‘Easy Rider’ in 1967. This was the year that the actor put away his ‘Nikon F’ forever. But from 1961 to 1967 the actor/photographer had captured not only the historical cultural upheaval of that decade but also the extraordinary political struggles that would change America forever.
Hopper’s photographs are an intimate document and portrait of that period in American history; of which the photographer always appears on the inside of events.
The actor/photographer’s 6 year foray into documentary photography often slipped into the poetic, and certainly informed his film ‘Easy Rider’ with its mix of realism, counterculture, and trippy visuals; Hopper’s images were a kind of storyboard that heralded the classic American cinema of the 1970s.
The exhibition is a recreation of that Fort Worth show offering a hidden glimpse into a quickly evolving and turbulent 60s America whose faces look out at the viewer from a formative and rebellious era long lost to us.
Words: Paul Anthony Black Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2014
Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album until 19 October 2014.
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