Dennis Hopper’s America

28 Jul

Hopper

Over the last two weekends I’ve been in London, recording interviews with the cast for the next series of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. It’s been great fun, and lovely hanging around in The Moat Studios, but I was very happy to have wrapped up my official duties by 2pm yesterday, so I could shoot off and do a bit of touristing.

With only a couple of hours to kill before my train home, I went to the Royal Academy to check out The Lost Album, an exhibition of photographs by the actor Dennis Hopper. There are more than 400 images in all, taken between 1961 (when his wife bought him a camera) and 1967, shortly before he began work on his directorial debut Easy Rider. Hopper would later portray a mentally frazzled photographer in the film Apocalypse Now, and his reputation throughout the late 1960s and 1970s was as a wild man, but if this exhibition demonstrates anything, it’s that behind the almost cartoonish excess and eccentricity he was constantly engaged with visual arts, both as practitioner and fan.

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

The writer Julie Burchill once commented – in a scathing (what else?) piece on David Bailey – that photography is “luck through a lens”, and while I’d disagree with the overall sentiment, there is often a grain of truth to it. The Lost Album includes pictures of Hollywood stars such as Paul Newman and John Wayne, and artists of the era, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Liechtenstein and Andy Warhol, and Hopper was certainly lucky to know them all well enough to take such candid pictures, but where Hopper’s photography goes beyond being the work of a keen and lucky amateur is in his ambition and scope.

Regular obsessions crop up: The Coca Cola logo, torn posters, cemetery headstones and dilapidated signage, as well as images of America’s nascent counterculture – its civil rights protesters, Hell’s Angels and proto-hippies – come together to form a kind of narrative. The show starts with celebrities, but soon enough we’re side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., or witnessing the Sunset Boulevard riots of 1966, or watching – second hand, via the curved screen of a television –  the funeral of JFK.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

If his civil rights stuff isn’t as accomplished as Bruce Davidson’s and his images of Mexico aren’t as inventive as Graciela Iturbide’s, that’s forgiveable. This is a photographer finding his way, but engaging with his subject all the same. If a lot of the time he’s riffing on his own influences (Coke bottles from Warhol or Rauschenberg, bull fighting from Hemingway etc), at least he’s influenced by the greats. In a way, if Hopper’s work depicts anything, it’s the forging of a new – and possibly unstable – American identity, one that was post-industrial and almost post-ideological. (There’s still something a little startling about seeing swastika badges on Hell’s Angels’ lapels.)

A middle room in the exhibition, and the room through which you leave the show, has the opening sequence from Hopper’s 1969 movie Easy Rider on a loop. It’s more than just a nod to the actor’s more well-known career as an actor and occasional director. Here, in his montage of bikers (played by him and Peter Fonda) riding across the American landscape (accompanied by The Band’s song The Weight) we see many of the same visual themes and preoccupations, only now they’re in blazing colour.

From Easy Rider (1969)

From Easy Rider (1969)

 

Whatever you now think of the movie itself, it was undeniably groundbreaking. Commercially, it demonstrated that unconventional indie flicks could make money, but it also changed how films look, being one of the first movies in which lens flare was treated as a visual effect and not something to be avoided or edited out. Including the sequence here makes an apt ending to a show that gives some insight into Dennis Hopper as more than just the star of Blue Velvet and Speed.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: