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Individual and irascible, photographer and polymath, Dennis Lee Hopper was much more than a man for all seasons. 

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Dennis Hopper | PORTRAIT TERRY RICHARDSON

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IT IS A SIGN OF THE TIMES. There are people walking the streets who have never heard of The Beatles, and by the same measure there must be many more who have never heard of Dennis Hopper. Or the film Easy Rider for that matter. And those who thought they knew Hopper – through the grey-faced and aged, angry and frightened man ranting to the press as he faced death from cancer – knew him not at all.

Yet in the person of Hopper, the dynamic of a complete generation, a whole half century, was made flesh. If the zeitgeist could be made human, then Dennis Hopper was cast in the role almost from birth. Born in Dodge City (with all its historic connotations) in 1936, Dennis Lee Hopper was exceptional – and fortunate – from the off. After his family moved to San Diego, he took art instruction at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and served as apprentice at the La Jolla Playhouse. The couple who ran the Playhouse reputedly spotted his red raw talent and sponsored him to Hollywood with a letter of introduction to the casting director at the Hal Roach studios. The social tumult of 1950’s America was beginning to spotlight disaffected youth and Hopper’s irrepressible self belief and simmering physicality fitted the bill to perfection. Following some minor TV parts, Hopper secured a minor support role in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film about juvenile delinquency: Rebel Without a Cause. Its star, James Dean, was to have a profound effect on the 19-year-old Dodge City outlaw.

'I thought I was the best young actor in the world. I was very good, I had incredible technique. I was incredibly sensitive. I didn't think there was anyone to top me. Until I saw James Dean. He was like, so loose, creating all these wonderful things. I grabbed him during the chicken-run scene, and said, "I thought I was the best, and now I see you, and I know you're better, and I don't even know what you're doing." He said, "Don't have any preconceived ideas. Just smoke the cigarette, don’t act like you’re smoking a cigarette. Approach something differently every time." That was the beginning of a lot of problems for me with directors.'

And it was. Hopper’s precocious arrogance on Rebel so enraged Ray that, unable contractually to fire him, all his dialogue was cut after the planetarium scene. He went on to play alongside his hero Dean in that actor’s last film Giant (1956) and thus, by default, Hopper appeared in what became two of the great cult movies of the decade. Only two years later, after a succession of small movie appearances slowly building on his career, Hopper’s excessive zeal during the filming of From Hell To Texas, directed by Henry Hathaway, forced over 80 re-takes for what should have been a basic dialogue scene. As a result, Hopper was effectively blacklisted by the studios for the next seven years. It was a period when Dennis fell back on his own creative resources and it proved his most fertile period as a painter, and latterly, a photographer.

When James Dean was killed in a car crash in 1955, Hopper was distraught and easily persuaded himself to be the bearer of Dean’s flame, interpreting his mentor as the ultimate rebellious maverick and anti-authoritarian figure. The fact that this chimed absolutely with Hopper’s own outlook on life and psychological make-up – and the fact that traditional American values were in a state of flux – established a blueprint for the future. The die was cast.

Even when his fortuitous marriage (the first of five wives) to Brooke Hayward, daughter of Hollywood star, Margaret Sullavan, and über-agent and producer Leyland Hayward, muscled him back into the movie business, he never stopped recording daily life through a camera lens. Sullavan was a close friend of John Wayne who engineered Hopper an unexpected opportunity in another Henry Hathaway picture, The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and, later, True Grit in 1969.

Ironically, it was James Dean who had encouraged Hopper to develop his interest in photography and it was a medium Dennis never wholly discarded, even in the bad times. His activities with a camera and as a painter made him a natural cohort of artists in both Los Angeles and New York, where he was immediately recognised as a fellow traveller and very much an insider. These liaisons enabled Hopper to acquire contemporary artworks that, in retrospect, credited him with a visionary Midas touch. Friends and accomplices from those days included Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Tony Shafrazi, Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, Claes Oldenberg, Ed Kienholz, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and dealers Irving Blum and Walter Hopps, to name but a few. He also patronised the seminal, cutting edge galleries in both Los Angeles (Ferus, Dwan, Feinstein, David Stuart) and New York (Warhol’s Factory, Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, Leo Castelli, Barr’s MoMA, Geldzahler’s Met).

Hopper’s artistic sensibilities had evolved alongside Abstract Expressionism and his early photographs owe much to notions of surface and the dynamics of shape and form. He spent many hours snapping walls, billboards and pavements, searching for the qualities he found in abstract expressionist painting. Later he adopted the influences of West Coast Pop Art and appropriated signage and what his namesake, the painter Edward Hopper, had once called the ‘chaos of ugliness’ that was the American urban cityscape.Shooting in black & white on Tri-X stock, using a 35mm Nikon, Hopper has been likened, not unreasonably, to Robert Frank and his acclaimed 1958 study, The Americans. Co-incidentally, Frank himself had moved from photography to filmmaking in 1959 (Pull My Daisy, written and narrated by Jack Kerouac and starring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and others from the Beat circle). Although Hopper claimed, in his first book of images, Out of the Sixties (1986): ‘I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive... They were the only creative outlet I had for these years until Easy Rider. I never carried a camera again...’, in actual fact he subsequently embraced digital photography with enthusiasm – ‘I was never a fan of the darkroom. But digital... that’s a whole new process that’s totally fascinating to me.’

1968 was the watershed year. Peter Fonda asked Hopper to collaborate on a parable of the American Dream set against the hippy culture: Easy Rider. Made for less than $400,000, it took over $40 million worldwide, becoming a totem of the counter-culture (and Best Film at Cannes). Famously falling out with Fonda over virtually everything – Fonda called him 'a little fascist freak', then became so frightened, he hired a professional bodyguard and carried a gun at all times – the movie made them both household names and kick-started co-star Jack Nicholson’s career. 'Easy Rider was never a motorcycle movie to me,' Hopper often stated. 'A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country.' Whatever it was about, overnight, Hopper, the ostracised loose cannon, became the man of the moment for the Hollywood studio bosses.

With a career trajectory somewhat reminiscent of Orson Welles (that other great anti-authority movie genius with a finger firmly on the self-destruct button) Hopper followed up Easy Rider with a complex, surreal, confusing extravaganza. Shot in Peru, The Last Movie (1971) attracted serious funding from Universal Pictures. When it bombed to rabid hostility, even from those Hopper considered his diehard fans, he was devastated. Dennis retreated to New Mexico and an orgy of self annihilation that eventually led to a spell in a LA hospital psychiatric ward, and to Alcoholics Anonymous. It was to take the actor 15 years to rebuild his career and regain the confidence of the film business, signposted by the role of Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986). A 1979 interlude on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as the acid-crazed press photographer, has generally been regarded as Dennis simply being himself. 

Dennis Hopper’s first spell in the wilderness (the first of many) ran roughly from the late 1950’s until Easy Rider in 1968, irrespective of John Wayne’s increasingly reluctant support. It was a time when Dennis prioritised his own painting and photography. Today Hopper’s images are collected, sought after and admired. They are the stuff of solo exhibitions across the world. Yet even this aspect of his art comes complete with an outrageous Hopper legend attached. It is known as the ‘Taos Incident’.In the mid-1970’s, post The Last Movie shambles, Hopper was closeted in Taos, New Mexico, at a low point in both his life and career. His long time associate, Walter Hopps, was visiting to help Dennis out with some tax problems via artworks in lieu. 

He arrived to find the actor in a deeply psychotic state, raging around, firing a machine gun through his bedroom wall and generally crazed. Hopps feared for the house and its contents and had the presence of mind to return a short time later to persuade Hopper that the negatives and prints scattered all around the property would be better off in a gallery store room (no doubt recollecting the notorious 1961 ‘Bel Air fire’ that destroyed the newly-wed Brooke and Dennis’ extensive art collection and all his own works –except the photographs, already safely lodged at the Feinstein Gallery). Many of these images became the basis for Hopps’ future collaboration with Victor Bockris, Jessica Hundley and Benedikt Taschen, along with Hopper himself, for the outstanding monograph: Dennis Hopper Photographs 1961-1967. A large-format work, published in 2011 by Taschen and edited by Hopper’s long time friend and now leading American dealer, Tony Shafrazi, it must be described as the definitive work on Hopper’s photographic work squared with his career as actor, painter and filmmaker. With cross referenced, personal narratives from eye witnesses and co-conspirators, and texts by the artist himself, this impressive tome of over 500 pages includes many double-spread images – all neatly indexed and annotated with back stories from those involved. It is a publishing triumph, and Benedikt Taschen has indubitably set the benchmark for artists’ monographs at this level. Tragically, Dennis Hopper did not live to see the book on general release, or witness the universal acclaim with which it has been received (a 2009 special limited edition, pre-release version sold out within days).

Dennis Hopper died at his home in Venice, LA, on the morning of 29th May, 2010 at the age of 74. He had been warned his prostate cancer was terminal. The funeral took place on 3 June, at the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. The Native American-style burial mound in the Jesus Nazareno Cemetery was his final request. The service was attended by his friends Jack Nicholson and Val Kilmer.

f22 is indebted to Susan Young (Richard Young Gallery) and Shelley Halperin-Smith (Taschen London) for help in preparing this article.


Dennis Hopper
26 June - 19 October 2014
Royal Academy, London


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