Before he ruined Sandra Bullock’s commute by strapping a bomb to a city bus; before he maniacally inhaled gas from a plastic mask, morphing into one of David Lynch’s most sadistic, unhinged villains; and before he donned a hippie headband, straddled a custom chopper and rode easy with Peter Fonda across the American West, Dennis Hopper took photographs.
They called him The Tourist. With his trusty Nikon slung around his neck, Hopper spent his 20s capturing images of 1960s Hollywood, Harlem, Tijuana and Selma, Alabama. He knew he was living through a unique time, and he wanted to document it.
It was James Dean — a co-star (Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) and close friend of Hopper’s — who suggested to the young actor that the practice and discipline of photography would help him prepare to direct films. When filming a movie, Dean explained, shots had to be framed correctly in the moment. Cropping a moving image after a shoot was not an option.
In the photos he shot from 1961 to 1967, Hopper took his friend’s advice, studying the world around him like a photojournalist with an artistic eye. He was careful in his framing and never cropped an image.
Easy Rider, Hopper’s directorial debut, was released in 1969 and launched a period in his life during which he set aside photography and focused on acting and directing. But before he packed his photos away in boxes, Hopper selected and exhibited 429 of them in a 1970 show at the Fort Worth Art Center in Texas. He organized the show himself, grouping the small, postcard-sized prints thematically and displaying them in long lines, like a black-and-white storyboard or a strip of film zipping along the wall.
The photos from that exhibit remained primarily in storage until they were rediscovered after Hopper’s death in 2010. Now a part of the Hopper Art Trust, the “Lost Album” has been exhibited in Europe and New York. Now Angelenos have the opportunity to view the collection in its entirety for the first time when “Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album” opens at the Kohn Gallery in Hollywood on Saturday, July 8 (the show runs through Sept. 1).
Curators Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon of Micronaut see their role as conduits for Hopper’s vision. They studied photos of the 1970 show in Fort Worth and meticulously re-created the groupings Hopper chose then, placing each photo on the Kohn Gallery walls in the exact order in which they were originally shown.
“Dennis really curated the show,” Mellon says. “My hope is that people who see the show appreciate it for the artist’s presentation and pacing.”
“In a way, that Fort Worth show was like Dennis’ own retrospective of himself,” Bohn-Spector says. “We have re-created that and added quotes and images of him along the way so that people will get the sense that they are hearing directly from him, as if he is walking them through the show.”
Along this posthumous tour, viewers will be greeted by images of Hopper’s extraordinary friends. A disparate group of up-and-coming actors, artists and musicians at the time, the individuals in Hopper’s album are now cultural icons: There’s Jane Fonda sunbathing in Malibu and Paul Newman squinting into the California sun. Andy Warhol lounges on a couch at the Factory. James Brown, surrounded by adoring fans, shoots a million-dollar smile at the camera. Ed Ruscha’s piercing, serious eyes seduce as he poses in front of a TV repair shop’s neon sign.
“You become this little voyeur,” Bohn-Spector says of the sensation upon viewing these intimate moments of art world and Hollywood celebrities. “Hopper was a very privileged photographer. He had access to a lifestyle, to connections, to travel, to money.”
The curator suggests looking behind the seductive curtain of celebrity: “I would love for people to take Dennis’ photography seriously,” she says. “Not just because he was in the right place at the right time or for who he was depicting but for the genuine artistic quest and hunger that is apparent. I feel he was a very hungry person — hungry for experience and hungry for artistic expression.”
Mellon says he sees Hopper’s artistic brilliance in images captured away from celebrity-saturated Hollywood. “I think he turns into a different photographer when he’s somewhere — be it geographically or at a point in time — in which he is less famous. When he’s able to be anonymous, he’s much more ambitious with his photography.”
Those less well-known photos, especially those taken by Hopper as he followed a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, reveal a young man sharply attuned to the time in which he was living and eager to capture it in all its messy complexity. They also reveal the photographer’s privileged position from a different setting, one in which he is more observer than participant.
In our current decade, there are a slew of 50th anniversaries (Kennedy’s and King’s assassinations, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the first man on the moon) that prod us to look back to the ’60s. Not only that but today’s political climate and societal struggles mirror those of Hopper’s youth. Black Americans are still seeking justice in the face of police brutality. Women are still marching for their rights. Everything has changed yet nothing has.
That’s why Hopper’s 20th-century male gaze can feel toxic at times, when viewed through modern eyes. There is Bill Cosby innocently peeking out from behind a leafy bush. There are the privileged white elite lounging poolside. There are women, naked, sexualized and objectified.
When it comes to Hopper, there is a slew of outdated politics, tabloid stories and personal demons to confront. “But, as happens when you delve into anybody, all of a sudden there’s a person there,” Bohn-Spector says of grappling with the drugs, womanizing and ego that crowd Hopper’s biography. “He spoke about the photography filling a void for him. Once you hear that, then he becomes human. He was really an artist. And that often comes with baggage.”
Both curators say that the real joy in this exhibit comes from witnessing a young artist’s pursuit of his craft. “Dennis picked up a camera to train himself to look at moving pictures,” Mellon says. “And what is fascinating is that it paid off. When you watch Easy Rider after seeing these photos, you recognize how certain scenes mimic the angles and perspectives of certain photographs almost exactly.”
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Hopper’s oldest daughter, Marin Hopper, says that before her father died, he told her he wanted to be remembered most as a photographer. That is, in part, why she is so passionate about exhibiting the “Lost Album.”
Her motives are also deeply personal. “He was always taking pictures,” she says. “That is how I remember him — framing the world with his camera lens.”
This show won’t replace Hopper-the-actor with Hopper-the-photographer in the public’s imagination. His films were too great, his villains too affecting, his roles too memorable. What the “Lost Album” does reveal is that behind this famous actor — behind all the bad guys and great lines — was a young man with a camera, learning his craft and making himself vulnerable in pursuit of art.
"Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album," Kohn Gallery, 1227 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood; July 8-Sept. 1. (323) 461-3311, kohngallery.com.