Dennis Hopper is best known as a cult actor and director, but throughout his twenties he was also a prolific photographer, capturing the Aquarian Age’s uneasy side: Hell’s Angels, hippies, Harlem street life and Civil Rights protests, as well as the urban landscapes of East and West coast America along with portraits of of f- duty Hollywood glitterati. Prompted by t he Royal Academy’s exhibition of these images, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album, and his least remembered directorial work, The Last Movie, also on show at the R A, Pennie Quinton reflects on the resonance of the 1960s US counterculture and what it means in a contrasting era of rampant neoliberalism.
The photographs on show in Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album are displayed in glass cases arranged in long rows on the white walls of the Royal Academy’s Burlington galleries, in a way that recreates Hopper’s 1970 solo exhibition, at the Fort Worth Art Center in Texas (the last time these prints were shown). Each of the 4.9” x 6.5” photographs was originally selected by Hopper himself from thousands taken between 1961- 67 on the Nikon F camera given to him on his eighteenth birthday by his first wife, Brooke Hayward. We have grown accustomed to seeing monumental sized paintings in museums, and to being seduced by glamorous products on giant animated advertising billboards in public spaces: so at first it was surprisingly hard to take in the complex narratives captured in Hopper’s small-scale prints. These portrait and landscape formats could be read as fragments from an almost decade-long road movie – photographic sketches that capture the edgy confusion Hopper would later manifest in his feature films Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971). Both of these are screened as part of the exhibition, with a larger-than-life projection of scenes from Easy Rider in the stairwell, its soundtrack filtering into the entrance and exit to the show.
When interviewed in 2008, Hopper stated: “The reason I was taking photographs is that I wanted to be able to [create] a visual image [like those in a film]. Also, the reason I never cropped my images – they were all full negatives – is because you can’t crop a movie film: it’s expensive. So you’ve got to think in full frames, and you’ve got to think another way.”1
Many of Hopper’s photographs document ’60s America at a time of social upheaval: the black struggle for equality and the fight for the implementation of the Civil Rights Act, popular resistance to the war in Vietnam and to the accumulation of cultural power and control acquired by the establishment through the McCarthy years. The late ’60s in the US are generally portrayed as a golden age of social liberation, but this was also the moment when the corporate Right, feeling threatened by the counterculture, began to develop strategies to regain its 1950s hegemony. These tactics would eventually produce the neoliberal global monopoly of wealth and power we see today. Hopper’s photographs are a glimpse at the ’60s before the clampdown, when freedom and social equality still seemed attainable goals.
Sixties America appears through Hopper’s lens as a series of identity parades, diminutive slices of memory cut by the roving eye of the cowboy film star; his weapon, the camera, hung around his neck (permanently, so he alleged, from age 18 to 31). Among the more glamorous of his subjects are intimate portraits of movie stars such as Paul Newman and Peter and Jane Fonda, artists Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and musicians Ike and Tina Turner, Buffalo Springfield and James Brown. It’s clear that Hopper didn’t just photograph his famous friends but everyone from bikers, protestors and flower children to Yaweh followers, the Pan-African movement at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park and a little boy walking in oversized shoes, like Pippi Longstocking’s – big enough to grow into. We see graveyards, bullfights in Tijuana, and exotic Mexico.
Hopper photographed Malibu beach a great deal. One photograph, ‘July 4th, 1964’, shows a short flagpole sunk in the sand; the stars and stripes, half-furled, hangs in front of the ocean near a wooden card table buried up to its top, with a rifle, seemingly left abandoned, next to it. It’s a still life featuring the props of the American frontier identity: the gun, the flag and gaming table.
‘Dixie Street Scene’ features a line of middle aged ‘redneck’ men standing guard in the street of a small Southern town, bearing guns and flags. This image succinctly captures the white supremacist assumptions of ‘good ol’ boy’ American identity that the Civil Rights movement, the flower children and the Hell’s Angels, each in their own way, and for different reasons, had to challenge.
Hopper, his camera to hand for almost a decade, records these spectacles of protest and uprising alongside the bread-and-circus distortions of American life mapped by consumerism and advertising.
Throughout these images, Hopper captures an underlying subversiveness in everything he sees. Some are made abstract by their framing, and have titles such as ‘3 Triangles’, ‘Untitled (paint marks on canvas material), Paint Blisters’, ‘Graffiti Stick Figure’, ‘Lips’ and so on. These photographs are shown alongside women working in factories such as ‘Untitled (the seamstress)’ or at the ‘All Night Diner, NYC’ – non-objectified figures, unlike the big screen stars he also captured. We see images of ‘Downtown, Los Angeles (working man)’ and the ‘Beauty School’ sign where beauty can never thrive; while Harlem (Daily News 1962) captures the landscape transformed by advertising into a sign. In ‘Double Standard’, we see two Standard Oil signs next to each other through a car’s windshield and the reflection in the car’s rear view mirror – a double pun in both senses. This photograph was later used as the invitation to an exhibition of Ed Ruscha’s ‘Standard’ gas station paintings, shown at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.
Whether Hopper was acting, making paintings, taking photographs or directing movies, he recorded the exotic and the oddities lurking in the everyday. Later, discussing how he chose the subject matter of his photographs, Hopper said: “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 an artist. I made my choices, I made my selection; I did not photograph everybody.”2
Hopper was signed up by the Warner Brothers studio aged 18, and as an actor he worked for many years in the industry of promoting and constructing popular mainstream brands and icons. He was cast as cowboy and maverick, living in the rugged freedom of the wild frontier. Yet these photographs and films seem to ask potent questions about what it meant to be other within the wider context of American identity – notably in terms of European, Mexican or Peruvian culture. Hopper’s photographs clearly capture some of the moments of grass-roots challenge and questioning, but they also reveal the cracks and weaknesses in the glamorous billboard vision that the US projected out onto the world. Looking at his photographs today highlights the surrealness of the then-new identities and counter-cultures that emerged in the 1960s championing social freedoms.
Like the Hollywood paintings of American artist Thomas Benton, Hopper’s photographs take us behind the scenes of places where American identity is fabricated, such as the billboard factory where he poses his friends in front of the half-painted images of blonde babes whose Barbie-doll faces would later be parodied by Roy Lichtenstein (whose work Hopper had admired in the 1950s). In the billboard factory sequence, Hopper hones in on the seedy glamour of American brands. His eye for commercial design is also reflected in his taste for pop art, something he developed some time before it took the art world by storm. His first fine art purchase was one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, which he bought from the Ferus Gallery for just $50, with insurance money he received after his house burned down.
In 1969, during the making of Easy Rider, Brooke Hayward and Hopper divorced, and for a long time Hopper quit photography. After the success of Easy Rider, however, he was offered a million dollars to focus on a project that had been close to his heart since working with James Dean on the film Rebel Without a Cause back in the ’50s: The Last Movie. Despite winning the critics’ film award at the Venice Film festival, the film was not well received in the US and plummeted into obscurity – as did Hopper himself for a decade after its release.
The Last Movie can be seen as the culmination of the many themes in Hopper’s stills. We see through the eyes of Hopper, playing the part of Kansas, a stunt coordinator in charge of horses on a western being shot in a small Peruvian village. The displaced cowboy stuntman wanders through celluloid rooms and rides across celluloid landscapes in the delirium of a kaleidoscopic waking dream. The film animates the similar bizarre realities that are frozen in Hopper’s photographs, leading the viewer through a maze of hedonism and egotism. It depicts a film within a theatrical fiesta within a film. It opens in a Peruvian cult for hippies who dance in spirit masks, conducting rituals in a warren of intersecting rooms, offering a close-up of an ear-piercing ceremony that could have inspired the severed ear abandoned in the grass in David Lynch’s 1986 movie Blue Velvet, in which Hopper co-starred.
In June 2000, Dennis Hopper said of himself: “I’m a very shy person and so for many years the camera was a great way to keep people afar.” The same kind of behind-the-camera defence fails the character Kansas, who is called in by the local priest to assist in a bizarre incident. The priest claims the movies have brought a new type of evil to the village: the Peruvian locals are ‘filming’ their own movie with cameras and light reflectors constructed of cane, acting out the western, but they reject the illusions of movie making as a form of weakness. Their violence is for real. As in the British horror movie The Wicker Man, Kansas becomes trapped in a ritual theatre, being forced to play the ‘Hollywood actor’ who for the sake of authenticity is in danger of being killed in the village film fiesta re-enactment.
The Last Movie explores the theatre of cruelty, and the ‘constructed’ cinema’s trickery in portraying brutality. The narrative challenges traditional cinematic storytelling, comprising non-chronological cut-ups and splices in several devices typically kept behind the scenes of filmmaking: rough edits and ‘scene missing’ cards, along with the use of jarring jump cuts. The effect is hypnotic: a never-ending drug-crazed nightmare, hinting at apocalyptic fears; a sense that the US identity, founded on genocide, will most likely be destroyed as the result of a genocide.
We see in this film, as we do in Hopper’s photographs, alternatives to the status quo: yet the American frontiersman desire still exists at the grass-root levels he documents. The Hell’s Angels, even the flower children, dreamt of alternative frontiers, and tried to live outside the mainstream. Hopper shows the US as a world gone crazy. The seeds of 2014 are all there, caught in Dennis Hopper’s ‘lost album’ of tiny monochrome images. Whether he was photographing a Civil Rights march to Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King (which he reportedly turned up to document on the off-chance) or trash-pickers in downtown Los Angeles, Hopper had his eye on social conflicts both broad and personal, and presents these contrasts of American life with a rare and stark candour.
(1) Dennis Hopper interview with Alexandra Shwartz. In Alexandra Shwartz: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles, Cambridge Mass, 2010
(2) Dennis Hopper & Henry T Hopkins, “The seductive sixties”. In Dennis Hopper: A system of moments. Exh,cat. MAK–Museum Für angewandte Kunst/ Gergenwartskunst, Vienna, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2001