Dennis Hopper – The Last Album @ Royal Academy

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) made his first movie appearances opposite James Dean in two classic films, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956).  Dean encouraged the young Hopper to pursue his interest in photography, a passion crystallised when his wife bought him a camera in 1961.

Throughout the 1960s he documented his life and travels not only as a Hollywood actor among other stars such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, the gorgeous Paul Newman…

Dennis Hopper Paul Newman, 1964 Photograph, 16.64 x 25.02 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Paul Newman, 1964
Photograph, 16.64 x 25.02 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

…  but also, as an amateur artist himself, in touch with the Californian avant-garde, as well as the New York pop scene of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.

Dennis Hopper Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman, 1963 Photograph, 17.25 x 24.74 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman, 1963
Photograph, 17.25 x 24.74 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

As a well-connected bohemian Hopper was in a position to  document (and take part in) some of the most interesting events of the 1960s, including the Civil Rights marches led by Dr Martin Luther King…

Dennis Hopper Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965 Photograph, 23.37 x 34.29 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Photograph, 23.37 x 34.29 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

… as well as the earliest hippy happenings and festivals, and the show features a number of photos of the pop groups who provided the soundtrack to the Summer of Love.

Dennis Hopper Untitled (Hippie Girl Dancing), 1967 Photograph, 34.29 x 23.37 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Untitled (Hippie Girl Dancing), 1967
Photograph, 34.29 x 23.37 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

Other subjects include: motor bikes and the Hell’s Angels (he was a keen biker himself), and shots of the poverty-stricken Mexico which attracted all bohemians for being so much the opposite of the rich, bourgeois US.

In 1969 all his interests came to a head when he co-wrote and directed the classic independent film Easy Rider, the story of a couple of long-haired bikers driving across some of America’s most spectacular desert scenery. It was as his writing & directing career took off that, by his own account, he put his camera down and never picked it up again.

Hopper scholars (there are scholars of everything and everyone nowadays) calculate he took some 18,000 photos during his active decade. Throughout the 1960s he exhibited photos along with art works at various small Californian galleries, but this exhibition is based on 400 or so pics he chose to display at a large show in the early 1970s which was intended as a definitive overview.

The photos

There are many really wonderful photographs here, well-framed and composed, capturing moments and people in that candid 1960s black-and-white way. The Hollywood stars look magnificent. The hippies look stoned. the pop bands look s oyoung. The bikers look hard. Mexico looks squalid. And many of the shots reek of that peculiarly American atmosphere of blighted urban locations, that urban rootlessness of freeways and billboards and motel signs and jaded women and raddled drunks at bars, Raymond Carver’s America.

Dennis Hopper Double Standard, 1961 Photograph, 17.45 x 24.87 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Double Standard, 1961
Photograph, 17.45 x 24.87 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

The lost 60s

But overall the show made me desperately sad. The idealism of 1966, when the Loving Spoonful and Jefferson Airplane provided the soundtrack to clean-cut college kids rallying to the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King’s crusade for freedom, seems as remote to our time as the Middle Ages. In the early 1970s the spirit of New American Cinema and various alternative types of rock or folk lived on in art and culture along with the dream of somehow changing the world, of liberating our minds, of creating a new society – but by the mid-70s had declined into cocaine abuse and heroin addiction, flares and mullets, exploitation movies like Carrie, the scandal of Nixon’s resignation, American defeat in Vietnam etc.

The election of Ronald Reagan in the States and Mrs Thatcher in the UK in 1979 signalled a new era, the cutting back of state-funded welfare, the unleashing of unbridled finance capitalism, and inaugurated thirty years of neo-liberal economics which have entrenched in place a super-well-paid executive class looking down on a poverty-stricken underclass, have crushed cultural and artistic experimentation – except to titillate the jaded palates of the international oligarchy with marinaded sharks and diamond-encrusted skulls – done little or nothing about racial prejudice, not lifted a finger about rampant environmental destruction and wasted a trillion dollars turning Iraq into the beacon of freedom and democracy we see today.

Dennis Hopper Leon Bing, 1966 Photograph, 17.68 x 24.59 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Leon Bing, 1966
Photograph, 17.68 x 24.59 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

Almost everything Hopper and his free-spirited pals thought they stood for has been crushed and defeated and that, to me, is what these often beautiful and evocative photos say. The freedoms to explore and experiment, to live and think and talk and create differently, have vanished like morning dew.

The romanticisation of a black and white hobo lifestyle now looks like a movement with its tiny origins in the Beat ethos of the 1950s, which became a nationwide craze in the later 1960s, died a long slow lingering death through the dreary 1970s, and is now an object of awed wonder to us late-comers, to later generations who not only enjoy Hopper’s often magical photos, but marvel at the hope and optimism of him and his subjects.

You should go and see it.

Related links

Advertisements
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: