Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album resuscitates the sixties at the Royal Academy of Arts

By Christian Engel | 25 June 2014

Exhibition review: Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album, Royal Academy of Arts, London, June 26 – October 19 2014

Click on the picture to launch the gallery

Dennis Hopper was not only a significant director of films such as Easy Rider and actor in classics including Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet. He was also a magnificent photographer of the 1960s, as proven by The Lost Album – a collection of 400 photographs, mostly in 24x16, which Hopper took between 1961 and 1967.

Almost all of them were selected and arranged by Hopper for his first solo exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum in Texas in 1970, after which his photos were lost. They only resurfaced after his death in 2010, when they were found in boxes.

A black and white photo of a man sitting half-naked in the sun
Paul Newman (1964)© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust / dennishopper.com
Reconstructing the order in which Hopper placed the pictures originally, curator Petra Giloy-Hirtz modelled them as closely as she could on the 1970 exhibition. Following a debut in Berlin, the exhibition is on show for the first time in the United Kingdom.

Hopper’s short career as photographer began with a birthday present.  His future wife Brooke Hayward – the first in an array of spouses in total – had given him a Nikon F camera with a 28 mm lens at the beginning of the sixties, when Hopper began taking pictures frenziedly.

Since he was a persona non grata in Hollywood in the 1960s, photography became Hopper’s major occupation. Between 1961 and 1967, he carried the camera wherever he went, taking an estimated 18,000 photographs with it.

Hopper deliberately decided not to use colour film and to stick to black and white photography. “I wanted to document something that I thought would be a record of it”, he said of his pictures. “Whether it was Martin Luther King, the hippies, or whether it was the artist.”

A black and white photo of a man standing on weighing scale
Untitled (Blue Chip Stamps) (1961-67)© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust / dennishopper.com
He managed to capture all of it – the excitement and the turmoil of his time. The sixties, as Giloy-Hirtz puts it, flash in front of your eyes – from the Hell’s Angels and mannequins to demonstrations and rodeos.

There are also no lack of celebrities in his pictures. Belonging to the inner most circle of the Los Angeles arts scene, Hopper took pictures of his friends including Andy Warhol, Bill Cosby, Peter and Jane Fonda, Paul Newman and Robert Rauschenberg.

Hopper’s pictures also witness the birth of mass media. They show a world inhabited by adverts, posters, traffic signs and televisions. Some of the pictures depict television screens showing John Kennedy’s funeral and the launching of moon rockets.

Hopper seems to criticise and admire this world at the same time. Pictures of his house at the time bear witness to this fact. His home was itself some sort of an artwork crammed with exceptional items such as a clown hanging from the ceiling.

A black and white photo of a woman in a dress dancing in a field
Untitled (Hippie Girl Dancing) (1967)© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust / dennishopper.com
Hopper’s house was also something like a salon for artists, actors, writers and musicians. “Everyone in Hollywood I’d wanted to meet was there”, Warhol later recalled about a party at Hopper’s house.

In a beautiful quote - also on display - Hopper describes himself as an abstract expressionist and an action painter by nature, and a Duchampian finger-pointer by choice, referencing Duchamp’s proverb that “the artist of the future will merely point his finger and say it’s art – and it will be art.”

Hopper seems to be a craftsman of such a kind. Photographed by him, everyday objects such as banisters, splattered walls or graffiti turn into modern art, nearly undistinguishable from paintings by Pollock.

“I am convinced that his photographs are leading to Easy Rider”, believes Giloy-Hirtz. “I even believe that they allowed Hopper to make the movie.”

When he started working on the film in 1967, Hopper stopped taking pictures professionally, although he was already an acclaimed photographer by this time.

Having the money to make a movie, which he considered to be the ultimate art, he had reached the peak of his artistic ambitions and neglected photography.

Hopper used to say that he missed a lot of shots because he was a very shy person, not wanting to intrude in the private life of other people.  Visiting The Lost Album, though, it seems that all the pictures we need are here.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday). Tickets £8-£11.50 (free for under-16s). Book online and follow the Academy on Twitter @royalacademy.

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