‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’ at RA

Dennis Hopper was right there during ’60s counterculture, and the photos in this exhibition are like a catalogue of this over-analysed decade, satisfyingly exhibited with minimal contextual information, allowing you to make up your own mind about them.

The reason why this is the ‘lost’ album is because they were chosen by Hopper for an exhibition in 1970, and not seen again since. The prints are the actual prints from 1970, some of them a bit shabby and dog-eared, often without a title or even a year beyond the range of ‘1961-7’. The RA has kept within the spirit of this minimalism, with three large rooms simply showing the photos one after another around the outer walls.

Apart from the sheer number of photos – over 400 in all – what strikes you is, firstly, the variety of themes; and secondly, the high level of technical expertise, with the exposure and composition (all the photos are uncropped) being really remarkable.

Hopper switches between reportage, street photography, fashion photography, paparazzi-style shots, portraiture, abstraction, music photography and travelogue with aplomb.

Untitled (Leon Bing) (1961-7) and Rudi Gernreich (1963-6) suggest the career Hopper might have had as a fashion photographer, but it is in his reportage, such as the Downtown Los Angeles series of 1965, the Sunset Boulevard riots of 1967 and the Civil Rights marchers and Martin Luther King in 1965, that you can see where his heart really was at at this time.

Many of the portraits are of close friends, sitting alongside artists of the time such as Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg, a milieu in which Hopper was evidentially comfortable. A standout would be the shirtless Paul Newman from 1964, with a chain-link fence casting a shadow over his torso. Similarly the West Coast band scene of the mid-’60s is well represented, with bands such as The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane to complement the burgeoning flower power movement.

If this wasn’t range enough, towards the end of the exhibition you see travelogue shots from trips to Mexico including bullfights and powerful scenes of the local peasants. A number of abstract photos such as Painted Broken Window from 1961 and Bannister (1961-7) show Hopper’s keen eye for detail.

Dennis Hopper apparently never carried a camera after 1967, once his career in film reignited, and this is only photography’s loss.

Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album continues until 19 October at:

The Royal Academy of Arts
6 Burlington Gardens

Photo: Dennis Hopper, Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt, 1964.

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