Culture Shock: Dennis Hopper’s American freak scene

An exhibition of the actor’s photographs shows the United States growing up

What’s striking about Dennis Hopper’s photographs of 1960s freak scenes, which have been on show over the summer at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, is that he’s never in the frame. In an age when every actor’s job description seems to be to snap selfies to project their ideal image to the masses, Hopper’s focus stands out: it was on the people in front of the lens rather than on the man behind the camera.

Hopper, who died in 2010, is probably best known for his film acting, such as playing Billy, the freewheeling biker, in Easy Rider (a film he also directed), the sinister screamo Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and appearances alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.

He was also a prolific photographer. His stills work provided him with a creative outlet during the 1960s, after he stopped painting and making abstract art. (He was also an astute collector of contemporary work.)

Back then, Hopper wasn't getting any acting work after an on-set altercation with the director Henry Hathaway during the filming of From Hell to Texas. Photography became a means for him to express himself. Although he claimed he "never made a cent from these photos", some appeared in Vogue magazine, and others featured on album sleeves, so he did make some sort of living from his camera.


Hopper's move into photography was a fortuitous twist of fate, as is clear from The Lost Album, the exhibition in London. Hopper had a brilliant eye for the detail required to make a great photograph, be it the composition or the look on the face of the subject. It was Dean who first encouraged Hopper to focus on his camera after he noted his coleague's straight, naturalistic style of photography.

His then wife, the actor Brooke Hayward, bought him a camera for his 25th birthday, in 1961, and it was permanently slung around his neck from then on.

Character and intrigue

He shot rising actors such as

Paul Newman


Jane Fonda

, the artists at large in Andy Warhol’s Factory, in New York, and many hairy rock stars, including The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Grateful Dead. His shots of Ike and Tina Turner and a vibrant

James Brown

in front of his private plane are full of character and intrigue. But Hopper did not focus only on famous names and celebrity – and, indeed, these profiles are far from glitzy or ritzy.

There’s a lot of nonportraiture here, too, including photographs of signs, shop windows, billboards, factories and street scenes in Los Angeles, New York and London.

His best work is probably the portraits of 1960s American counterculture at large, in the shape of hippies, flower children, Hell's Angels, cowboys at a rodeo, and civil-rights marchers. Like Robert Frank, Hopper was passionate about bringing the classes often viewed as outsiders into the centre of the frame, because they also had a story to tell.

He took many of the shots of civil-rights activists during a 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King. Instead of simply focusing on the speakers at the sharp end of the march, Hopper concentrated as much on the rank and file who were following proceedings, including children and curious onlookers.

His maverick tendencies and underdog allegiances probably gave him great empathy for those subjects. A definite air of menace, for example, comes off a print of white office workers, in suits and macs, standing on a street corner, glaring at the marchers.

Informed rigour

Yet you also get a sense of a robust, diligent reporter at work. There’s an inquisitive and informed rigour to the work as Hopper seeks to map out what was happening across the US during that groundbreaking decade. It’s also obvious that Hopper relished the freedom that came from not having to answer to the demands of any editor, director or producer. He was free to point his camera in any direction and simply shoot what appeared.

Sometimes he didn’t get it right – you could cull the more abstract work from the 400 or so vintage, small-format, card-mounted prints on show and not lose much – but it’s the photos that capture a country growing up that have the most resonance.

Inevitably, much attention will focus on the photographer’s fame from his other work and, indeed, his photographs of now famous figures such as Warhol, Newman and Fonda caught in their formative stages. You can be sure this was part of the thinking for the gallery when it came to giving over space and time to the show.

But Hopper’s photographs are worthy of note not simply because he was a celebrity. They tell a vibrant story of a time when so much changed in the US and contribute a modicum of context to that topsy-turvy narrative. It’s a time capsule from an era when the wild, the innocent and the dreamers had the world at their feet, a time when anything seemed possible.

Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy of Arts until October 19th Fintan O'Toole is on leave