Dennis Hopper’s ‘60s Dispatches, Home at Last in Kohn Gallery
In the summer of 2010, Marin Hopper, founder of Hayward Luxury and daughter of Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, encountered a collection of photographs in her father’s garage in Taos, New Mexico. It was a trove of images that she had heard referenced, but had never seen with her own eyes.
The small-format pictures were exhibited for the first time in 1970 at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum for the photographer’s first big solo show: “Dennis Hopper: Black and White Photographs.” Dennis Hopper selected over 400 unedited black-and-white photographs that he had taken over the course of six years between 1961 and 1967 using his 35mm Nikon Camera.
Now, in 2017 – fifty years after the Summer of Love – the exhibition has been faithfully reproduced at the Kohn Gallery for a 21st century audience. Titled Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album, the show offers a broad look at the Sixties and the many sub-cultures and movements that the decade produced. Hopper’s inquisitive eye and dogged reportorial sensibility found him documenting everything from Tijuana bullfighters and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March – where Hopper photographed Martin Luther King Jr. – to the Ferus Gallery artists of Los Angeles, southwest road bikers, and moments from his personal life.
Dennis Hopper was better known as a Hollywood actor when he began taking pictures, having received attention for his two roles alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). It was James Dean who lent him a piece of advice that went on to help shape Hopper’s artistic vision and would encourage him to pursue his interest in photography: “If you want to be a director, get a camera and shoot photographs like you would with a film,” Marin Hopper recounts. “You can’t crop or edit, and you have to do full frame and just train your eye to be able to photograph until you’re able to make a film and direct it.” He apparently took the words to heart, and immersed himself in photography.
Hopper represents a certain demographic within the art world that uses contingency and impulse as part of their photographic process, mixing journalism and high art. His style has a distinctive reverence for the happy accident and the unfiltered truth, along with a deeply democratic respect for his diverse subjects that reflects the free-wheeling creative ethos of the time, an ethos that would be manifested in literature, movies like Easy Rider (1969), and in the art and music of the era. Taken together, Hopper’s sixties-era photographs offer up a vital survey of a pivotal decade of American history, through the eyes of a man who sat at the center of it all.
Despite the continuous advancements in digital photography, there’s been a resurgence in the appreciation of the physicality of film, as seen in the revival of instant cameras and film projection. I asked Marin Hopper why film remains such a vital presence in a world of ever-increasing digitization. “There’s something that is very tactile and alluring about having it done the original way,” she tells me. “It is important to continue not to abandon film photography.”
Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album was first shown in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum in 2012, and later in London at The Royal Academy in 2014. A selected series of photographs from the original 1970 exhibition were shown at MOCA in 2009 for Hopper’s retrospective, but the exhibition hadn’t been shown in America in its original layout since the original showing in Fort Worth, until Gagosian Gallery organized a show in 2013 in New York. It has never been shown in Los Angeles, where the majority of the images were taken.
“One needs to see it all together at Khon Gallery in Los Angeles to understand the intensity and richness of his work and his eye,” Marin Hopper says. Fifty years on, Hopper’s vitality still shines through. Seeing the images today, amidst another decade of mass upheaval and political strife, is informative and somehow reassuring – we’ve been in the shit before, and we made it out. We can do it again. That’s the power of good art, and the importance of documenting history. It always has something new to say to the present.
Written by David Romo