Dennis Hopper Exhibit
Movie star Dennis Hopper captured 1960s culture and politics as a photographer
The actor's photos are at the New Britain Museum of American Art.
By the time Dennis Hopper shot to international super stardom in “Easy Rider” in 1969, he had been a busy but relatively unknown film actor for 15 years.
One of his friends was James Dean, who he acted with in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.” Hopper mentioned to Dean that he wanted to direct films someday and Dean advised him to take up photography to train his eye.
Years later, Brooke Hayward, who would become his first wife, gave Hopper a camera, and Hopper took Dean’s suggestion. He got the nickname “The Tourist” because he took his camera everywhere — onto movie sets, into art galleries, onto the streets, to protest marches, riots, “love-ins” and bullfights — taking pictures of friends, strangers, sometimes just shadows or shapes or a TV screen.
An exhibit of Hopper’s black-and-white photographs — 453 in all, taken between 1961 and 1967 — is up at New Britain Museum of American Art. The show was curated by Hopper himself in 1970, when it was presented at the Fort Worth Museum of Art.
Hopper died in 2010, but NBMAA Executive Director Min Jung Kim placed all of the small-scale prints from the Fort Worth show exactly as they were placed on the walls there.
“It’s arranged in a linear fashion, like filmstrips or storyboards,” Kim says.
The show is called “The Lost Album” because after the Fort Worth exhibit, the photos went into boxes and were stashed in Hopper’s attic. They stayed there until after he died. His daughter Marin found them while looking for something else. The show has made a few stops in Europe, but the NBMAA exhibit is the first time since 1970 that “The Lost Album” has been shown in a U.S. museum.
“What it really comprises is a portrait of an era, a time capsule into the 1960s, an incredibly turbulent but hopeful time,” Kim says. “He took pictures of the counterculture, artist friends, pop-culture icons, bikers, trips to Mexico, the Civil Rights movement. He followed Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. He recognized the importance and significance of what he captured.”
The exhibit has similarities to “California Dreaming,” which was exhibited at NBMAA last year. Hopper – a lifelong art aficionado and collector – was a regular at Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery, which was the focus of “California Dreaming.”
“This show is different but it is a continued examination that began with ‘California Dreaming’,” Kim says.
Hopper’s photos of his friends and colleagues — including John Wayne on the set of “The Sons of Katie Elder,” Harry Dean Stanton on the set of “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman, Jane Fonda and legendary rock bands including Jefferson Airplane, Lovin’ Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield — place him in the center of entertainment-industry social life.
Likewise, his images of art-world luminaries Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, Ed Ruscha and gallerists illustrate Hopper’s early appreciation for, and participation in, the burgeoning L.A. art scene, both the black-tie galas and the dumpster-diving for working materials.
But it is the photos of the unknowns Hopper encountered along life’s way that are the most fascinating. We don’t know anything about these people except what Hopper captured, and we want to know more:
• How do those little black girls, photographed on a trash-strewn street, feel about having only a white doll to play with?
• Do you have to wear flowers in your hair to be considered a flower child, or is the girl in the Chinese headdress a flower child, too?
• Do all 13 of those people hanging around on a porch live in that teeny house?
• Those politically engaged kids, marching for voting rights, what kind of lives did they have?
One can’t help but wonder what was going through Hopper’s mind when he shot his photographs of Hell’s Angels, on their bikes, lounging around, with their girlfriends. Were the seeds of “Easy Rider” planted by his interactions with the bikers?
The most overtly artistic segment is Hopper’s “urban expressionism” pieces. The series of close-up captures of typical city street scenes take on the qualities of abstraction or even surrealism, as in the shot of a building, with reflections of people hovering in the air, like ghosts.
The only element to the exhibit that is less than compelling is the segment focusing on bullfights in Tijuana. Hopper’s photos of weakened bulls speared by multiple banderillas, and other photos in which the bull’s back is slick with moisture, presumably blood, are sickening.
DENNIS HOPPER: THE LOST
ALBUM is at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., until Jan. 27. nbmaa.org.
“Ike and Tina Turner,” 1965, gelatin-silver vintage print.
“Paul Newman,” 1964, vintage print.
“Biker,” 1961, vintage print.
Dennis Hopper, "Double Standard," 1961, gelatin-silver vintage print.