Photo: Dennis Hopper, Billy Al Bengston, 1964, Gelatin silver print mounted on cardboard, 6 2/5 x 9 4/5 inches. Courtesy of The Hopper Art Trust and Kohn Gallery.
Dennis Hopper (1949-2010) is best known to the world as an actor and director whose films sharpened the cutting edge, whether appearing in Rebel Without a Cause (1954), Easy Rider (1969), or Blue Velvet (1986). Hopper didn’t play by the rules that Hollywood wrote, and quickly earned the reputation of being “difficult.” Finding himself ostracized by a studio system that loved to sell rebellion but couldn’t tolerate it within its own ranks, Hopper turned to photography.
His first wife Brooke Howard gave him a Nikon, and he began documenting the world in which he lived—and he lived hard. He attended the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1955, hanging out with outlaw biker gangs, art stars, musicians, and actors. He created the cover art for the Ike & Tina Turner classic “River Deep – Mountain High,” released in 1966, and was described as an up-and-coming photographer by Terry Sothern in Better Homes and Gardens (of all places).
“But I tell you the truth,” Luke wrote (4:24). “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” And so it was for Hopper, who showed his work around the globe, that his first major photography retrospective in Los Angeles only occurred after his death. Yet this is where our story begins, for it was at the exhibition preview at the Museum of Contemporary Art that Julian Schnabel introduced Petra Gilroy Hertz, author of his book of Polaroids, to Hopper’s daughter, Marin.
In an interview with The Telegraph in 2012, Marin indicated she did not feel the museum had done Hopper justice. She decided to partner with the Hopper family to create another exhibition and was invited to the family home in Venice Beach. It was here, in the garage, when luck struck and an additional five boxes containing 429 prints that Hopper had exhibited at the Fort Worth Museum in 1970, were rediscovered.
The full collection was published as Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album (Prestel), a selection of which is now on view in an exhibition of the same name at Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles. Here were see Hopper as he saw himself: an artist, auteur, outsider, insider, renegade, romantic, and idealist who understood the photograph’s power to transform the way we look at the world.
Hopper not only made headlines, he understood the insistence of history and the need to capture this moment in time for posterity. In this way the discovery of these works is right on time, for they speak to the current moment in a way as though they could have seen it coming from behind. The photographs, made between 1961 and 1967 are intimate and poetic portraits of the times, taken by a man whose access allowed everyone to let down their guard.
Here we see Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Paul Newman, James Brown, members of the Civil Rights and Pan-African Movements, Hells Angels, and Evangelists, not just as historic figures but as men and women going about their business. Perhaps because he was an icon, Hopper did not lionize. He did not imbue his subjects with celebrity nor hoist them up on pedestals. Nor did he seek to strip them of their artifice. He simply showed them as he saw them: as colleagues and comrades in the struggle.
“Dennis was a fixture,” Ed Ruscha told The Telegraph. “He was just always around, always taking pictures and making things…. The thing I appreciated was he was so kind of restless. And then you say, God, he’s had more than one life. I mean, here he checks in with all these great performances in movies, but he always comes back to art.”
Perhaps this is because, art offered a salvation of sorts, a place where he answered to no one other than himself, a space where he could mediate life exclusively on his own terms. “Like all artists I want to cheat death and contribute something to the next generation,” Hopper said.
Let the choir say, Amen.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.