Culture Shock: Dennis Hopper’s American freak scene

An exhibition of the actor’s photographs shows the United States growing up

The Lost Album: Ike and Tina Turner, 1965. Photograph: Dennis Hopper, courtesy of the Hopper Art Trust

The Lost Album: Ike and Tina Turner, 1965. Photograph: Dennis Hopper, courtesy of the Hopper Art Trust

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

What’s striking about Dennis Hopper’s photographs of 1960s freak scenes, which have been on show over the summer at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, is that he’s never in the frame. In an age when every actor’s job description seems to be to snap selfies to project their ideal image to the masses, Hopper’s focus stands out: it was on the people in front of the lens rather than on the man behind the camera.

Hopper, who died in 2010, is probably best known for his film acting, such as playing Billy, the freewheeling biker, in Easy Rider (a film he also directed), the sinister screamo Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and appearances alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.

He was also a prolific photographer. His stills work provided him with a creative outlet during the 1960s, after he stopped painting and making abstract art. (He was also an astute collector of contemporary work.)

Back then, Hopper wasn’t getting any acting work after an on-set altercation with the director Henry Hathaway during the filming of From Hell to Texas. Photography became a means for him to express himself. Although he claimed he “never made a cent from these photos”, some appeared in Vogue magazine, and others featured on album sleeves, so he did make some sort of living from his camera.

Hopper’s move into photography was a fortuitous twist of fate, as is clear from The Lost Album, the exhibition in London. Hopper had a brilliant eye for the detail required to make a great photograph, be it the composition or the look on the face of the subject. It was Dean who first encouraged Hopper to focus on his camera after he noted his coleague’s straight, naturalistic style of photography.

His then wife, the actor Brooke Hayward, bought him a camera for his 25th birthday, in 1961, and it was permanently slung around his neck from then on.

Character and intrigue

He shot rising actors such as Paul Newman and Jane Fonda, the artists at large in Andy Warhol’s Factory, in New York, and many hairy rock stars, including The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Grateful Dead. His shots of Ike and Tina Turner and a vibrant James Brown in front of his private plane are full of character and intrigue. But Hopper did not focus only on famous names and celebrity – and, indeed, these profiles are far from glitzy or ritzy.

There’s a lot of nonportraiture here, too, including photographs of signs, shop windows, billboards, factories and street scenes in Los Angeles, New York and London.

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