As amazing discoveries in the back of a closet go, this has got to rank right up there with the best of them. A highly acclaimed body of work thought to be lost forever, which had not been on public display in forty years. A priceless historical archive whose creator had not only turned their back on, but had once threatened to destroy. The ‘lost album’ of legendary actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper. 420 black and white prints – whittled down from an archive of some eighteen-thousand photographs taken between 1961 and 1969 – exhibited in 1970 just as Hopper more or less gave up photography for good. His widow found them in a dusty box amongst some old Christmas decorations, when she was clearing out his Los Angeles home shortly after his death in May 2010.
The Royal Academy of Arts, the third venue for this exhibition after runs at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2012 and New York’s Gagosian last year, have not only displayed the very same 420 prints that were exhibited in Fort Worth, Texas, forty-four years ago (except for nine which were lost). But they have also tried as best they can, using all the information that was available, to display them in exactly the same order. The head curator, therefore, of Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is Dennis Hopper himself, and I was curious as I walked around to see how he categorised his photographs and what theme, atmosphere or mood tied certain groups of images together.
After some minor acting roles in the late fifties – albeit in at least two legendary films, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, on the sets of which he befriended James Dean – Hopper’s career had come to somewhat of a standstill by 1961, when his wife bought him a Nikon F camera and a 28mm lens. Until 1969’s Easy Rider (which he directed and starred in) relaunched his film career, his years behind the camera lens were a period of drifting. Hopper was short of money and short of prospects. ‘I never made a dime from these photographs,’ he later remarked, ‘they cost me money but they kept me alive’. Clearly, as the incredible cast of famous faces in the photos demonstrate, an interesting circle of friends helped keep him alive as well (this despite an insatiable appetite for drugs, that would become the stuff of legend). Hopper counted amongst his friends and acquaintances a who’s-who of 1960s pop-culture America. From the film world, Paul Newman, Dean Martin and John Wayne; and from the music world, just about every band from the west coast scene, including Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful. A keen painter and sculptor himself, Hopper also found himself right at the centre of an emerging Los Angeles art scene, the likes of Larry Bell, Wallace Berman, Edward Kienholz and Ed Rusha all making numerous appearances in these photos. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney also make a cameo appearance or two.
If the whole exhibition had consisted of pictures of these famous faces from the 1960s – which still would be made for an interesting exhibition – one could have come away thinking of Hopper as just a well-connected man who happened to live in LA in the sixties and liked a party. And always carried a camera with him. But it was, what we might call, the supporting cast who really brought this exhibition to life for me. It is the pictures of the rallies and the marches, the festivals and the love-ins, of the hell’s angels, the hippies, and the civil rights protestors, that really give this body of work its substance. Hopper was a rebel, a hellraiser, and a renegade in every sense, in many ways the embodiment of the values of 1960s counterculture. Whether it was artists, musicians or writers rejecting what had gone before and creating revolutionary work, or hippies dropping acid and indulging in a bit of free love, Hopper felt he could relate to all of these people. To see them captured in this candid way, by a man who felt that he was witnessing what would come to be regarded as important and iconic moments in history, is to see the sixties brought to life in vivid and enthralling detail.
Whether it was deliberate or not, I got the impression as I went around the first set of prints that this was someone learning as they went and gradually becoming a better photographer in the process. Some of the first ones look like rather care-free snaps, without much thought having gone into composition, lighting or exposure. But as I went on, I was struck by how much more skill and precision seemed to have gone into taking the photos. Towards the very end of the exhibition, in fact, there is a whole section devoted to abstract photography, demonstrating Hopper’s keen eye for detail, and his fascination with the urban landscape. Reflections in puddles feature a lot, as do ripped clothes on washing lines, and advertising billboards, which I got the feeling often amused Hopper, who juxtaposes their sunny, chirpy slogans with grime and decay in several of the images. Like many great street photographers, he had the ability to capture the everyday in such a way as to create images that could be very playful or surreal. Other surprises include shots from London, including some taken at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, and an interesting set of street scenes taken in some run-down neighbourhoods in Mexico.
I was intregued to see quite a number of photos that were underexposed or very blurred, to the extent that it is very difficult to make out what exactly is happening. It occurred to me that they are just the kind of pictures that in today’s digital age a photographer would probably disregard, hastily deleting from their hard drive with a click of a mouse, making them distinctly ‘film age’ images. And some are incredibly atmospheric and evocative, like the sequence showing a crowd of protestors and policemen at some kind of rally or demonstration. Is one of the policeman striking a protestor? Or are the policemen simply moving people out of the way of the oncoming car? Either way, the pictures create a mood of volatility and tension. Even if no act of violence is happening, you feel it might break out at any moment.
My favourite of all the photographs were of the Selma to Montgomery march, one of the most important events of the civil rights movement. Even after seeing countless photos and footage of Martin Luther King, Hopper’s picture of him addressing the crowds – by the looks of things, he was very close to him at the time – still has real impact, King’s powerful charisma leaping out of the image at you. Hopper also snapped many of the people in the crowds, as they assembled to hear King speak. They stand in small groups and large groups, from the world-weary old men in their suits and hats, some of which were probably old enough to have been born in the nineteenth century, to young children, most of them probably still alive today. These images really capture the atmosphere and emotion of the occasion, which comes across not as one of jubilation or celebration, but more a kind of cautious optimism. From the world-weary expressions of the old men to the beaming smiles of the young children, peer into the eyes of these people and you can capture a sense of both hope and uncertainty.
Clearly Dennis Hopper was someone with a very real sense of history being made around him. Of a seismic shift taking place. There are a handful of shots taken in his living room showing a TV, during broadcast of some of the sixties’ most important events, like the aftermath of the JFK assassination, and the flight of the Apollo missions. I liked how these images put a historical context to all the other images. Even in 1970, when Hopper first chose these images for exhibition, he was obviously profoundly aware of what an important decade had just passed.
For anyone with an interest in the sixties, or in the history of youth culture, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is an absolute must. Fans of street photography will find it well worth the entry fee too. The exhibition runs at the Royal Academy of Arts (in the Burlington Gardens building) until 19th October 2014, with tickets costing £10.