In the Middle of Everything: Dennis Hopper and “The Lost Album”

An American photojournalist gone insane in the middle of the jungle, waiting for the crew of a boat with arms wide open: to me this character from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is still the most iconic among those Dennis Hopper portrayed onscreen. Coincidentally or not, besides being a director and a painter, the actor also had a past as a photographer. The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which is on display until 19 October 2014, is here to reveal it.

In co-operation with The Dennis Hopper Art Trust, curator Petra Giloy-Hirtz managed to get together 400 vintage prints found in boxes after Hopper’s death in 2010 and recreated his 1970 first solo installation at Fort Worth Art Center Museum (Texas).

Saying that Hopper was a prolific photographer is not completely true: although from 1961 to 1967 he took something like 18,000 photos, he then stopped using the camera. As his own words quoted on the walls of the Royal Academy tell the visitors, photography was just a phase in Hopper’s multi-faceted career. “I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive. I started at eighteen taking pictures. I stopped at thirty-one…”

Dennis Hopper, “Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt”, 1964

Dennis Hopper, “Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt”, 1964. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

“These represent the years from twenty-five to thirty-one, 1961 to 1967. I didn’t crop my photos. They are full frame natural light tri-X. I went under contract to Warner Brothers at eighteen. I directed Easy Rider at thirty-one. I married Brooke at twenty-five and got a good camera and could afford to take pictures and print them. They were only creative outlet I had for these years until Easy Rider. I never carried a camera again.”

Dennis Hopper, “Roy Lichtenstein”, 1964

Dennis Hopper, “Roy Lichtenstein”, 1964. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns are only a few of the artists that Hopper knew and framed with his camera. Intimate pictures or portraits taken in public, they were however only one subject among Hopper’s wider interest in what was going on in the 1960s. Again, in his words: “I wanted to document something. I wanted to leave something that I thought would be a record of it, whether it was Martin Luther King, the hippies, or whether it was the artists.”

Dennis Hopper, “Paul Newman”, 1964

Dennis Hopper, “Paul Newman”, 1964. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

As you easily realise while walking through the rooms of the exhibition, Los Angeles in that period was the place to be in the US. Featuring an active art scene, the film industry, the turmoil of the music, fashion and architecture, the city was also the epicentre of social tensions and clashes between young people and the police because of strict curfew laws for nightclubs.

If many of Hopper’s photographs of artists were commissioned for invitations to openings at the L.A.-based Ferus Gallery, his eye also caught a wide range of themes and events unrelated to the world of “rich and famous”. These instant portraits range from the members of the motorcycle club Hells Angels, to life in Durango, Mexico; from the homeless in Downtown Los Angeles, to the Civil Rights Movement March; and from a quiet and lonely Mexican cemetery to a tense bullfight or the chaotic riots on Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood.

Dennis Hopper, “Double Standard”, 1961

Dennis Hopper, “Double Standard”, 1961. Courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy also features excerpts from some of his films. A few final quotes close “The Lost Album” and link the moving images and the motorcycle as a symbol of what he was chasing with his art. “The movie to me was about freedom and the responsibility that you have of being free. I was involved in the hippie movement and the free speech movement… I was never a biker, even though [they] were a symbol of freedom to me. Bikers were the modern cowboys.”

Gordon Parks’ “American History”, or Why Style Can’t Be Taught

Portrait of Gordon Parks: photographer, writer, musician and director. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Portrait of Gordon Parks: photographer, writer, musician and director. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Ingrid Bergman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Gould, Paul Newman: some of the most iconic portraits of celebrities, artists and human rights activists of the 20th century were taken by a self-taught photographer born into poverty and segregation in Kansas.

Gordon Parks, “American Gothic, Ella Watson, Washington, D.C., 1942.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “American Gothic, Ella Watson, Washington, D.C., 1942.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) is probably the most important African American photographer in the history of photojournalism. During a short vacation in Italy, my home country, I had the chance to see “Gordon Parks. An American Story”, a retrospective curated by Alessandra Mauro for Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia/Gordon Parks Foundation/Contrasto, held in Verona at the Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri.

Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri (Verona, Italy). Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri (Verona, Italy). Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

In this very peculiar location, an archaeological site with finds from ancient Rome, 160 b/w and colour images were displayed: a collection of family portraits shot in Harlem in 1968, crime reportages, as well as fashion shoots, representing some of Parks’ best work.

An activist supporting the Civil Rights Movement, according to the biography provided by the Gordon Parks Foundation, Parks bought his first camera at a pawnshop and “was drawn to photography as a young man when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine.”

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Despite his lack of any formal professional training, he got his first job at the Farm Security Administration. He later went on freelancing, working on fashion projects as well as documenting humanitarian issues. He ended up becoming the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine.

Gordon Parks, “Muhammad Ali, c. 1970.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Muhammad Ali, c. 1970.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

During his career he proved to be a multifaceted artist, including in his practice photography, writing, music and filmmaking. Although he is probably best known for the blaxploitation flicks focused on private Detective John Shaft (Shaft, 1971 and Shaft’s Big Score, 1972), he had already started to shoot films in 1964 and continued until 1987.

His filmography spans the story of folk singer “Lead Belly” (Leadbelly, 1976) to the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography Twelve Years a Slave (Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, 1984), long before Steve McQueen had an interest in it.

Faithful to his belief that a camera is a powerful instrument against discrimination, Parks’ photos from “American History” are a statement of his eclectic talent, personal commitment and social justice.

Whether it is a reportage from a crime scene or intimate portraits of influential political leaders, his unique and vibrant style tells a story of someone whose instinct and heart really worked together to capture the moment.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, New York, New York, 1957.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, New York, New York, 1957.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

The only flaw of the exhibition in Verona, which is on display until 28 September 2014, is the poor quality of the translation of the English texts that go with the photographs. It was a very annoying kingdom of typos and misspellings that Shaft would have gunned down with no mercy.

From Sub-culture to Pop Culture: “The Bikeriders” Ride Again

Charlie Hunnam as “Jax” Teller, President of SAMCRO

Charlie Hunnam as “Jax” Teller, President of SAMCRO.

In the last few years Sons of Anarchy has proved to be one of the most successful American TV series. Its seventh and final season will be airing in September in the U.S. Now might then be the best time ever to be a fan of outlaw motorcycle clubs on the screen. Not long ago bikers were instead considered part of a sub-culture whose members were quirky, potentially dangerous mavericks living outside the law, following their own rules and involved in deadly situations (remember the Hell’s Angels at Altamont?).

Cinema has helped popularise the fascination for rebels on wheels mixing stardom and fashion. There is no doubt that Marlon Brando wearing the hat and leather jacket of Johnny Strabler and leading the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club through the dozy streets of California is a truly iconic moment in the history of moving images.

Marlon Brando in "The Wild One", directed by László Benedek in 1953

Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”, directed by László Benedek in 1953.

As was “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Wyatt (Dennis Hopper)’s quest for an idea of freedom in America they weren’t going to find, hitting the road to the notes of Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild.

What happened between The Wild One and Dennis Hopper’s 1969 directorial debut was that bikers drifted into society and (pop) culture. And we have to thank photojournalism for that. Bikers were indeed quite hard to frame until the day Danny Lyon devoted himself to the art of photography and chose them as the topic of what was going to become the first reportage inside a motorcycle gang, shot over 4 years.

Danny Lyon on the back cover of the re-issue of "The Bikeriders".

Danny Lyon on the back cover of the re-issue of “The Bikeriders”.

The outcome of that unique experience was The Bikeriders, a seminal work on the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club, whose life Lyon shared between 1963 and 1967. He became a member of the club and as such had access to both public events, such as races and meetings, as well as to more private moments.

Danny Lyon, "Crossing the Ohio, Louisville".

Danny Lyon, “Crossing the Ohio, Louisville”.

Nearly half a century after the original exhibition, ATLAS Gallery is presenting a show tied in with the re-issue of The Bikeriders, originally presented in 1968 and now published by Aperture. I had an intimate tour with the curators thanks to one of Love Art London’s final events.

Danny Lyon, "Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin".

Danny Lyon, “Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin”.

The Bikeriders is among the finest examples of Lyon’s work. Its main feature lies in the fact that the American documentary photographer, who later went on to work for Magnum, was basically sharing his own experience as a member of the Club. That’s why the intimacy we see in the photos is so palpable.

Danny Lyon, "Big Barbara, Chicago".

Danny Lyon, “Big Barbara, Chicago”.

As Ben Burdett, Director of Atlas Gallery, explained during our tour, “Danny is not behind the camera. He is between the camera and the subject of the photo. He is present.” I would also say that he’s even in the pictures, as it’s easy to spot his reflection in several chrome details of the bikes. He is a living example of the New Journalism he helped to create.

The Bikeriders is on display at ATLAS Gallery until 16 August. Catalogue available at the Gallery’s shop.