Monday 8 September 2014

Californian Cool: New Exhibitions of Dennis Hopper Photographs

Dennis Hopper directing The Last Movie in 1971 after his cult film Easy Riders. He had spent most of the 1960s taking photographs. 
Rome’s Gagosian Gallery opens its first major exhibition of American actor and director Dennis Hopper's photographs. The show offers a vivid and spontaneous glimpse of the sixties and seventies that mixes Californian cool, political idealism and a sense of optimism, reports Jeanne-Marie Cilento

"I was a compulsive shooter back then. I was very shy, and it was a lot easier for me to communicate if I had a camera between me and other people..." ~ Dennis Hopper 

DENNIS Hopper was at the centre of the era's great social and political upheavals and he took his Nikon camera everywhere: on film sets and locations, at parties, in diners, bars and galleries, driving on freeways and walking on political marches. He photographed movie idols, pop stars, writers, artists, girlfriends, and complete strangers. 

He captured some of the most intriguing moments of his generation in the 1960s and 70s with a curious and intrepid eye. He photographed Hell’s Angels and hippies, the street life of Harlem, the Civil Rights movement, the urban landscapes of East and West coast America. He documented Andy Warhol at his first West Coast show, Paul Newman on set, Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Tina and Ike Turner in the studio, Jane Fonda marrying Roger Vadim in Las Vegas. 

The Rome exhibition of Hopper’s work encompasses his photographs from the 60s and the 1970s Drugstore Camera series plus screenings of his films and interviews. Meanwhile, the Royal Academy in London is now showing a large exhibition of his work called The Lost Album. A recreation of a 1970 exhibition of photographs at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum, originally arranged and selected by Hopper himself.

Dennis Hopper is of course best known as a cult actor and director. His reputation was established by films such as Easy Rider which he directed in 1969 and performances in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), Apocalypse Now (1979), Blue Velvet (1986) and Hoosiers (1986), Paris Trout (1991), True Romance (1993) and more recently as Victor Drazen, in the American TV series 24.

In the beginning, it was Hopper’s friend James Dean who first interested him in photography. According to Hopper, it was on the set of Rebel Without a Cause, that Dean noticed his eye for composition, telling him: "I know you're going to direct some day so learn to take photographs and don't crop them, use the still full frame." During his rise to Hollywood stardom, Hopper began to capture the avant-guarde spirit of the 1960s with his black and white photographs.

"I didn’t use a light meter; I just read the light off my hands, so the light varies, and there are some dark images,'' Hopper said about his method. "Also, I’m sort of a nervous person with the camera, so I will just shoot arbitrarily until I can focus and compose something, and then I make a shot. So generally, in those proof sheets, there are only three or four really concentrated efforts to take a photograph. It’s not like a professional kind of person who sets it up so every photograph looks really cool."

He travelled from Los Angeles to Harlem to Tijuana, Mexico with his camera always strung over his shoulder. Hopper was an intuitive rather than a photographer obsessed with technical virtuosity. For the whole of the 1960s, Hopper used a Nikon camera, given to him by actress Brooke Hayward on his 25th birthday. “I spent my last $351 on a Nikon that was thereafter permanently slung around his neck," Hayward said later. "He never left the house without it. It turned out that he was as natural a photographer as he was an actor."  

Hopper used 35mm Tri-X film, a fast film made by Kodak which allowed photographers to dispense with light-meters and flash almost entirely. "Well, I was a compulsive creator, so it became my creative outlet," Hopper recalled later. "I was using Tri-X film — which nobody else was using at the time — because I wanted to get as much natural light as possible and be able to shoot everything in natural light without flashes. I was a product of the movie business." 

Most of his work as a photographer dates from the 1960s and 70s and he was an astute and passionate art collector. He was among the first collectors of artists such as Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein and many other experimental American artists of the period. 

"From the start, Dennis was very interested in what was happening in contemporary art," said art dealer Irving Blum. "When Pop Art broke in Los Angeles in 1961, he was one of the first people to pick up on it. I sold him one of the Campbell's soup cans for $100 in 1962. He bought some Lichtenstein landscapes before that when no one had even heard of pop. He saw the transparencies on my desk, and he just said, 'Yes! I want them.' You could tell he was someone with an understanding of the zeitgeist where art was concerned. He was utterly instinctive and absolutely on the money."

By 1960, Hopper had already established himself as part of the fledgling contemporary art scene in Los Angeles as an artist and a collector. This centered around the Ferus Gallery in La Cienega Boulevard, founded in 1957 by curator Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz. "The art world in Los Angeles in the early 60s was minuscule: two or three galleries, and not many artists spread far and wide around the city,’’ said Ed Ruscha. “Dennis himself began to collect art and could be counted as maybe one of the four people in the movie business that had any interest in the art of the day."

Hopper’s early creativity included writing poetry, abstract painting and sculpture. He stopped painting in 1961 after a fire destroyed his home, his own paintings and his contemporary art collection. During this period, he was preparing his first exhibition of photographs at the Photo Lab/Gallery in Los Angeles and photography then became his main passion.

"I think of my photographs as ‘found’ paintings because I don’t crop them, I don’t manipulate them or anything. So they’re like ‘found’ objects to me," Hopper said of his early work.

At the start, he did abstract pictures, trying out multiple images and enlarging prints and showing them alongside found objects. His photography was recognized when he won first prize in an international competition in Australia for an early series called Pieces and his work was commended in a 1963 feature in Artforum

"Dennis was shooting many portraits of his friends in those days, especially artists," says Ed Ruscha. "I remember, with me, he picked the location, a storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard that sold saws and industrial tools. There was not a lot of making ready or posing to my portrait. He used his trusty Nikon 35mm camera. In 10 to 15 minutes, he had just what he wanted."

The Rome exhibition includes portraits of a wide range of influential artists, actors, and musicians and are among 100 signed vintage prints. Andy Warhol, wearing dark sunglasses and a skinny tie, the Ed Ruscha image where he is pictured in front of the neon-lit appliance shop. Robert Irwin gesturing at Hopper while clenching the end of a light bulb between his teeth and members of the Grateful Dead blowing kisses at the camera.

The Drugstore Camera photographs were shot in Taos, New Mexico, where Hopper lived a wild life of drink and drugs until the 1980s after directing Easy Rider. The pictures taken there were developed in drugstore photo labs and document Hopper’s friends and family among the ruins and open vistas of the desert landscape. There are also female nudes in shadowy interiors, road trips to and from his home state of Kansas plus impromptu still lifes of discarded objects.

"After Easy Rider, I didn't do another movie for while," Hopper recalled when he took up photography again. "So I lived in Mexico City for a couple of years. I lived in Paris for a couple of years. I didn’t take any photographs, and then I went to Japan and saw a used Nikon. I bought it, and I just started, like an alcoholic. I shot 300 rolls of film. That was the beginning of me starting again, and then I went digital." 

Today, Hopper’s work is in public collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. There have been major exhibitions and retrospectives of his work in the USA plus shows in cities across Europe.

Scratching the Surface: Photographs by Dennis Hopper, Gagosian Gallery, Rome Italy, September 24th ~ November 8th 2014: http://www.gagosian.comDennis Hopper: The Lost Album, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, now on until 19th October 2014:

Click on photographs for full-screen slideshow
Dennis Hopper discussing the layout of his photographic exhibition with staff at the Fort Worth Museum, Texas in 1970. The show is now recreated as The Lost Album exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London.  

Dennis Hopper with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda at Cannes for the premiere of Easy Rider 1969

Dennis Hopper Bill Cosby 1965 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. caption

Dennis Hopper Jane Fonda and Brooke Hayward (Hopper's wife at the time) in Malibu 1964 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. 
Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman, Malibu 1964 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper at 18 years old on the set of Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. James Dean had encouraged Hopper to start taking photographs.

Dennis Hopper John Wayne and Dean Martin The Sons of Katie Elder 1965 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and David Goodman 1963 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper Robert Rauschenberg with his tongue stamped Wedding Souvenir, Claes Oldenburg © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper Double Standard 1961  © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper Robert Fraser Tijuana Mexico 1965  © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper with is daughter Marin in Malibu, 1964. Photograph by Robert Walker Jr.

Dennis Hopper Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim at their wedding in Las Vegas, 1964. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. 

Dennis Hopper, Andy Warhol and The Factory members (Gregory Markopoulos, Taylor Mead, Gerard Malanga, Jack Smith)  New York 1963. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper, Roy Lichtenstein, 1964  © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper Ed Ruscha, 1964 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper James Rosenquist 1964 Billboard Factory, Los Angeles © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. 

Dennis Hopper Niki de Saint Phalle (kneeling). 1967. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper Wallace Berman 1963 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.caption

Dennis Hopper Biker Couple 1961. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper  Model and mob mistress Leon Bing, 1966. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

Dennis Hopper Ike and Tina Turner, 1965.  © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust
Dennis Hopper Bad Heart 1961 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

Dennis Hopper, Martin Luther King Jr, 1965 Montgomery, Alabama © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper, Untitled (American Indians) 1965 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

Dennis Hopper News is Daily Again 1963 © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. 

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