I know what you’re thinking – Dennis Hopper… Dennis Hopper the actor? The one who tried to blow up Keanu Reeves on a speeding bus before coming a cropper atop a subway train? Indeed, Hopper was a keen photographer in his twenties and early thirties and this exhibition at the Royal Academy combines over 400 pictures taken between 1961 and 1967, a period of incredible social change in America particularly, and capturing subjects as diverse as the Civil Rights Movement, Mexican cowboys, hippy festivals, Hell’s Angels and 60s celebrity.
This is very much Hopper’s exhibition in every sense, not just his photographs and history, but it replicates an earlier showing of this work curated by Hopper himself in 1970 before he hung up his tripod and devoted himself to becoming the acting megastar we came to know. As a social documentary this is fascinating and although it is by no means in chronological order, you do get a sense of Hopper’s development as a photographer. Oddly some of the best pictures are at the very end of the exhibition where he simply pointed his camera at the television and snapped two of the most significant events of the twentieth-century – pictures from the moon’s surface and of Kennedy’s funeral. What was he doing? Well, either he is making a profound statement about the circular relationship between society and the media, or more likely in the days before widely available recording equipment, Youtube and DVDs he was recording crucial moments in the only way he could.
You get the sense that crucial moments feature a lot in this exhibition, although it’s not always clearly defined. What would have been fresh and instantly recognisable to an audience at the original exhibition with only 10 years to look back on, at a distance of more than 40, and for the most part thousands of miles from where these things took place, you can lose any sense of their meaning. Of course you’ll recognise Martin Luther King and the rallies for the Civil Rights Movement, as well as being impressed by Hopper’s ability to place himself on the cusp of political change, but our knowledge of some of the other activities, as well as the people involved has settled into a cosy nostalgia. For those born much later it’s harder still given our knowledge of those times comes primarily from inaccurate TV and films, so the struggles, danger and likelihood of failure are palled by the years. The winning of those greater rights for all regardless of gender, race or class are now so taken for granted that it is genuinely difficult to picture a world without them and the huge risks run by trying to win them.
What would have helped here is more contextual information about the world in which these photographs were taken. They are divided into particular themes, and it’s not always clear what these are – for example a photograph of one of Hopper’s friends standing in front of plates of wedding cake sits in what seems to be the celebrity-mates section, while another picture of the same cake is among the abstract images, yet both clearly relate to the same place and time which we learn nothing about. Nor do we learn much about the people in the pictures or even about Hopper himself other than his diverse subject interest and a sense of his lifestyle. The curators here could have tried to supply some of those missing links for a modern audience and helped us interpret not just the thematic structure of the rooms, but also how well Hopper’s images have lasted as a testament to those experiences. I’m assuming this is once again in an overpriced exhibition guide that you’d be expected to buy in the shop.
The vintage prints themselves are interesting and although Hopper can’t claim to be a particularly technical or distinct photographer, there is a valuable documentary feel to some of this work. Alongside the political stuff, the depiction of a bull fight across several images is fascinating, if unpleasant, capturing both the danger and speed of the sport. The Royal Academy isn’t known for its photograph exhibitions and the display here isn’t entirely successful. The cases look rather old-fashioned and spreading this across 3 cavernous rooms is a mistake because you lose a sense of intimacy that the pictures are trying to convey. I did leave feeling slightly underwhelmed and not a little disappointed. That’s not really Hopper’s fault, and given the passage of time since these were first displayed, the RA could have done much more to make this a valuable tool for visitors of all ages. It’s certainly a coup for them to have a celebrity exhibition but you have to ask yourself whether being interesting is enough, shouldn’t it mean something as well?
Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy until 19 October. Admission is £11 (including donation) and decent concessions are available.