By Geoff Stanton
Before his ferocious ascent to Hollywood new-guard and celebrated psychotic, a young Dennis Hopper kept the flame guttering through photography. Parties, bar rooms, film sets, diners, bull fights, friends, artists, riots, bikers, the backrooms of celebrity – through the blizzard of the sixites Hopper was never without his camera. “I never made a cent from these photos” he said. “They cost me money but kept me alive … They were the only creative outlet I had for these years until Easy Rider. (After that) … I never carried a camera again.”
In the early years he had pocketed a handful of roles, notably alongside friend James Dean – as a member of the juvenile delinquent gang in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and in Giant (1956), as the sensitive son of Texan oil millionaire Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. He also carved a niche for himself as slightly psychotic villains in westerns such as Gunfight at the OK Corral (1956) (“I don’t know why I get into gunfights. I guess sometimes I just get lonely”) and From Hell to Texas (1958).
But when his then-wife Brooke Hayward gave him a 35mm Nikon camera for his birthday in 1961, he dedicated himself “like an alcoholic”. Along with the film icons and rock stars, Hopper’s exceptional work captures many watershed moments of the 1960s, such as Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March, as well as the Sunset Strip curfew riots and Monterey Pop Festival. “I wanted to document something. I wanted to leave something that I thought would be a record …whether it was Martin Luther King, the hippies, or whether it was the artist”.
Hopper recalled that it was Marlon Brando who got him involved in one of the most volatile events – the Selma-to-Montgomery March. “He pulled up in his car and said, ‘What are you doing day after tomorrow?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘You want to go to Selma?’ and I said, ‘Sure, man. Thanks for asking me.’ [Then at the march, police] dogs were biting, and people were being bombed, and it was like, ‘Where are we?”
By 1971, following the success of Easy Rider, Hopper was bankrolled by Universal with $850,000 and given total creative reign to produce whatever he wanted. His 2010 obituary in The Guardian makes for colourful reading:
“He moved to Peru with a cast and crew for a self-penned, directed and edited meta-monstrosity, The Last Movie (1971). The film starred Hopper as a stuntman with a Christ complex on the set of a western being directed by Samuel Fuller, the film, made for the stoned by the stoned, was stoned by the critics.
His eight-year marriage to Brooke Hayward, the daughter of actor Margaret Sullavan, had meanwhile ended in divorce. In 1970, he married Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas & the Papas - it lasted eight days. (“The first seven days were pretty good,” Hopper once commented.) In the same year, a raving, naked, drug-fuelled Hopper was arrested while running around Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Before The Last Movie’s release, Hopper wrote and appeared in an autobiographical documentary, The American Dreamer (1971), which showed him editing The Last Movie at his home in Taos, New Mexico, spouting hippy philosophy, taking baths with women and shooting guns. In the same year, a raving, naked, drug-fuelled Hopper was arrested while running around Los Alamos, New Mexico. This sealed his reputation as the most flipped-out man in the movies, and he spent the next 15 years in foreign films, personal projects, and low-budget arthouse or exploitation movies.”
But his photos remain a tribute to Hopper’s lucid eye, brilliantly capturing the moods behind the moments. He is today also remembered as an accomplished painter and sculptor, and a well-connected personality on the American art scene.
“I didn’t use a light meter; I just read the light off my hands. So the light varies, and there are some dark images. Also, I’m sort of a nervous person with the camera, so I will just shoot arbitrarily until I can focus and compose something, and then I make a shot. So generally, in those proof sheets, there are only three or four really concentrated efforts to take a photograph. It’s not like a professional kind of person who sets it up so every photograph looks really cool.” (Dennis Hopper).
Shortly before Hopper passed away in 2010, Viggo Mortensen called his friend of 20 years “a complete and fertile artist” who was “a constant source of ideas, inspiration and humour for his friends and colleagues”. Since his death Hopper’s photos have been exhibited extensively around the world, and his work beautifully presented in Taschen’s ‘Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967′