Tapping the Zeitgeist
It is often said that those who actually remember the Sixties, weren’t there, but in the case of photographer John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, this could not be further from the truth.
Text: Laura Noble | Images: John Hopkins
It was Hoppy’s job to remember the Sixties and - with his blend of artistry and social activism - his achievements to keep that dream alive are maybe impossible to truly quantify.
Driven by a love of music, literature andfreethinking, Hoppy cut across moments both ordinary and extraordinary. He has met, seen and listened to some of the most iconic figuresin western cultural history, a bewildering cast of characters who collected under his lensonly further serve to cement the uniqueness of the decade.
Much of Hoppy’s early work as a photographer has become iconic and his associations legendary. In fact, his own influence –particularly in his co-founding of the International Times – would certainly warrant placing him within his own frame
Laura Noble: At what point did you decide to become a freelance photographer?
John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins: Being a freelance is both a material condition and a state of mind. I guess I saw myself as a freelance human being before adopting the role of a ‘photographer’, so the transition from a secure paid job at the Atomic Energy Authority to the precarious position as a young freelance wasn’t so hard to make. I just had to keep my nerve.
Was there one event that initiated your decision to regularly document the underground and the music scenes you were a part of?
Not exactly. But there were some memorable personal occasions. Hearing the Count Basie band with Joe Williams at Bradford town hall. Hearing Louis Armstrong at the Gaumont State, Kilburn. Going on the 1963 Aldermaston March and discovering Regional Seat of Government 6 - a secret bunker, part of the defence network. The 1965 Albert Hall poetry reading. Taking LSD for the first time.
As a co-founder, contributor and occasional editor for the underground press – notably International Times - can you tell me how IT began?
In the early 60s, Barry Miles and I started Lovebooks, a small literary company, which published in the UK work of Ginsberg, Burroughs and other beat generation writers. As the decade rolled on, we found ourselves in a rich cultural milieu with many parallel strands both English and international. After the 1965 Albert Hall poetry reading - with a 6000 strong audience - we thought it would be helpful to start an international cultural magazine to link London to New York and Paris and Amsterdam and so on. And to unite the painters, musicians, dance people and those involved in boutiques and the clothing scene – more of a mass-communications medium than a small literary paper. We had as a model New York’s Village Voice from the mid-Fifties, and latterly the East Village Other, a more radical version of the same concept. Once it started in late 1966, IT just grew like Topsy. It must have been the right thing to do.
What role did photography play in the alternative press, apart from purely objectively recording the Sixties?
An important but overlooked contribution was providing the raw material for some of the best-looking posters and magazines of the era. For example, the collaboration between photographer Bob Whitaker and designer Martin Sharp produced great posters of Hendrix, Che Guevara, Bob Dylan and also influenced Oz magazine, which itself broke new ground in multicolour litho printing. In today’s world of image manipulation this is nothing special, but in those days, it was revolutionary.
Do you think you were aware of how influential IT would become as a historical document of the Sixties and beyond?
Not at all! If I had, I would be fat and rich today.
Your access to famous cultural figures of the time was incredible. How did you meet people and persuade them to contribute, or were they more than willing?
We were all fish swimming in the same sea (except for people like Frank Sinatra who travelled with a permanent bodyguard). To tell the truth, a lot of it is to accept people at face value and not to take oneself too seriously. Most people have something about them, you can be interested in them whether they are famous or beggars.
Many of your photographs are in dark places, concert venues, clubs like the UFO and at gigs and jam sessions. What sort of camera and equipment did you use in those days?
I preferred to work in available light, but I often used bounce flash when the light was too low. Among my favourite conditions for shooting musicians was TV show rehearsals as people were always well lit; you could use a long lens with a shallow depth of field. And the sound of mirror slap didn’t bother the producers because it was only a rehearsal. Most of the time I used 35mm film and Nikon F backs, 28mm, 105mm, and a beautiful 180mm f2, 8 Zeiss Sonar that had so much inertia you could shoot at quite slow shutter speeds like 1/8th sec (a trick I learned from Romano Cagnoni). I also used Canon & Leica viewfinder cameras with 25mm f1.4 & 21mm lenses. Plus there was one camera back with a vertical motion metal shutter, it was good for taking pictures off TV, I think it was a Minolta. In those days zoom lenses were crap quality. And for formal studio work like packshots, I would use a Mamiyaflex medium format with a staggeringly sharp lens.
Did you have a darkroom?
Yes, except that it was painted white instead of black on the basis that if I could exclude all external light, when I had the safelight on, I could see a lot better than in a black room. It worked.
When did you decide to produce your work as silver gelatin prints?
When I learnt wet photography, there was no reasonably priced alternative to silver gelatin (a term I only began to use when I encountered the art market years later). Having played with modern alternatives both of printing methods and surfaces, right now I’m interested in scanning 35mm negatives into Photoshop for retouching, outputting onto sheet film and printing onto silver gelatin for archive quality. This may offend purists but, frankly, I don’t give a damn.
Did you see your work as art or simply as an eyewitness’s record of the social and underground world you yourself were a part of?
The camera is just another tool. You can use it for art, documentation, promotion, pornography, propaganda, and memory reinforcement for geriatrics etcetera etcetera. I gradually learned to see myself as an artist because this seemed like a good cover story for being able to cross boundaries, get grants and subventions, while retaining some of that ol’ monkey curiosity no matter what medium I was working in. As for art, it’s really a market sector defined by the criterion of producing a profit margin of 300%. And it should be fun.
How did you get in touch with musicians at the time? Was it purely through gigs or did you have a closer relationship with them?
The Melody Maker often sent me on commissions, which meant that introductions and explanations were not called for. But Ronnie Scott’s club was exceptionally tolerant, and I can’t ever remember having to pay to go in, even ten years after I stopped being a photographer!
Some musicians I got to know quite well personally, for instance when Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy first came to England they stayed in my spare room. And others such as Cornelius Cardew and AMM Music, Ron Geesin just happened to be friends of friends. Then there’s Mike Horovitz, whose specialty is poetry and jazz, whom I’ve known for almost fifty years, he is well networked.
You have taken several portraits of Marianne Faithful, which are quite intimate. She seems very responsive to being in front of the camera. Did you ever set up a portrait in advance or were they always more spontaneous than that?
Marianne was very sweet. I’m told she still is. Some people just have it. Most times the idea of ‘portrait’ is a label, which is stuck on afterwards to close-ups. Seriously though, you can set up an environment to a degree before your subject arrives, but I always found it was better to work in a person’s own environment because they are more relaxed in the familiar.
Who was the most difficult person to photograph?
Miles Davis, he hated white photographers. But looking back I think I can now understand better the mindset, which says: if you take my picture, you are taking something from me.
Was anyone camera-shy?
My local Rastafarian posse in 1965, every cop I’ve ever met, and some women of a certain age when undressed.
How did you persuade people to be photographed who weren’t used to being in the spotlight?
By explaining carefully how the pictures would be used and what for. It didn’t always work, but I rarely bullshitted. Fortunately I never had to do door-stepping.
Back to the subject of access, how did your ability to get near icons such as the Beatles and The Rolling Stones alter as they became more and more famous?
It got harder, except for John & Yoko who were always approachable (though not good at keeping appointments). And sometimes the tables were turned, as when Yoko recruited a whole lot of us to be in her film Bottoms where we had to bare our asses for the camera.
When and why did you decide to turn your attention away from photography in favour of video?
I put the still cameras down at the end of 1966 so I could get on with promoting on the underground scene with the IT newspaper, UFO psychedelic club and various other enterprises. When someone introduced me to video in 1969, I knew immediately it was the medium I had been waiting for - with instant feedback, moving images, synchronised sound, cheap running costs and as-yet-undefined applications. It was like walking into a new world.
Do you keep in contact with any of the icons that you photographed back then?
Yeah, certainly with those who are still alive, but let’s not name them.
John died on 30 January, 2015 aged 78.