Saturday, 19 February 2011
When the actor and director Dennis Hopper died last year, it sparked renewed interest in his 'other' career – a chronicler of Sixties America. As his stunning photographic archive is published in a book for the first time, John Walsh pays tribute.
The film critic Matthew Hays wrote of him: "No other persona better signifies the lost idealism of the Sixties than that of Dennis Hopper". Note the word "persona" – as if the real Hopper lay forever hidden behind the image he projected, of the scary, wild-eyed, chemically enhanced, crazily enthusiastic combination of hippy visionary and serious artist.
He was born in Kansas but his parents relocated to San Diego in 1949 when he was 13. California clearly suited him. In his high-school graduate class of 1954, he was voted the Boy Most Likely To Succeed. He didn't waste much time. His film career began a year later, when he appeared in Rebel Without a Cause, the first of two films with James Dean. Hopper hero-worshipped Dean, and was with him almost every day for eight months before Dean died in a car crash. And it was Dean who encouraged him to pick up a camera.
Ironically, the death of his friend pitched Hopper into such a fever of anti-authority attitude that for years Hollywood studios refused to use him. Photography became a substitute. His first pictures were street scenes in New York, where he moved to study acting at Lee Strasberg's method school. The turn of the 1960s was an explosive time for the arts – pop music, pop art, wayward graphics, post-studio cinema, photo-realist reportage, the rise of the art super-dealer like Robert Fraser in London and Henry Geldzahler in Manhattan. Hopper lapped up all the new influences around him. He was, reputedly, the first person ever to buy a Warhol soup can (for $75). He became a self-confessed "gallery bum". And his photographs began to reflect two things he had discovered: the texture of the ordinary, and the attractions of fame.
His pictures of empty highways, graffiti and torn posters on city walls were eloquent statements of everyday decadence. When Hopper moved on to photographing people, he revealed a talent for capturing expressions. Check out the three black kids on the "Full Employment" demonstration in Alabama (above): the boy in the middle is clearly wondering if the white snapper is going to use his image for good or ill; but his friend grins sardonically as though pleased just to have his picture taken.
Look at the biker couple in his 1961 double portrait: the man so handsomely chiseled, his hair so back-slicked, his beard so trim, his tattoos so expressive of death, glory and rebellion as he gazes into the future – and his girlfriend so contrastingly down-to-earth, as if she's wondering just how long she can put up with this troubled, self-preening hero.
As he grew more confident and better known into the Sixties, Hopper acquired some famous friends and put them under the intelligent gaze of his lens. Paul Newman is snapped, looking grumpily like his jailbird alter ego Cool Hand Luke, behind a wire-mesh fence, so that its shadows imprison him in a net. He photographed Jane Fonda and her husband Roger Vadim in a series of loving poses, but managed to snap Jane flexing her independent muscles with a bow and arrow. He caught Ike and Tina Turner in a wonderfully ambiguous mood, amid the carnival paraphernalia of his house: Ike sitting on a kind of throne, fingering the organ keys, while Tina is left (ironically?) playing the role of washerwoman, scrubber, and cowed helpmeet (not that she looks terribly cowed).
His photography became more experimental (see Twins, above, where two bursts of strong Klieg lights blind the viewer who is trying to concentrate on the girls' bottoms) and more celebrated. In the mid-1960s, Better Homes & Gardens magazine commissioned a profile of him as "a photographer to watch" by the novelist Terry Southern, later to write Candy and The Magic Christian. By 1967, however, his photographic career was over. No longer an up-and-coming snapper, he was soon to become the hottest new director around. His counter-cultural masterpiece, Easy Rider, won a prize at Cannes, and was nominated for an Oscar (for best original screenplay). But his photographs, which capture with intelligence both street-life and the lives of famous friends, remain Hopper's vivid calling-card, announcing the arrival in town of a wild and wayward talent.
'Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967' is published on Monday by Taschen
More photos here.