Anyone looking at this 544-page collection of photographs is going to be in for a huge surprise. Not only was Dennis Hopper a fine motion picture actor, writer and director he was also one of the best photojournalists of the 1960s.
Unlike most photojournalists and photographers who are always shooting from the outside of an event looking into it, Hopper was taking endless photographers from the inside of the event. His pictures are obviously taken by a photographer intimately involved in the scene. Maybe he was invisible, or just so accepted by the group of subjects he was working with, that they ignored him? Maybe it was a technique he'd picked up from acting in movies? Maybe it was his director's eye where the movie camera is right in the middle of the event? However, since most of these photos aren't of Hollywood people, he was able to achieve the same intimate connection with all his subjects. His pictures are different from most photographers of that era or this one. He is there, up close and personal with his subject matter. He must have always had his camera and was shooting so much that people eventually just ignored the constant click, click, clicking and Nikons make a lot of noise when the mirror swings out of the way of the shutter. At least it was probably possible to tell where he was in the room just by listening for the telltale sound of his Nikon as he moved around. "Oh, there goes Dennis playing with his cameras again. Don't pay any attention to him. Just ignore him if he sticks his camera right in front of your face."
Perhaps that ability to blend comfortably into the scene is best stated by Hopper himself in the caption to some of his nude photos titled "Twins at 1712, 1966":
"When I was a teenager and moved to California, I realized there were a lot of artists and actors I thought were great--everybody from Van Gogh to W. C. Fields--who basically had the idea that you can't make discoveries if you sit around waiting for something to happen. You've got to get out of there. And sometimes that means exploring all kinds of stimuli, Sex, drugs, anger, passion...sex."
Dennis Hopper definitely followed that philosophy.
Like all photographers of the period he was aware of what other photographers as well as fellow painters were doing. His photographs in the book are arranged in several general categories with some overlapping of subjects and images depending on the circumstances. The various sections of the book are "Visions of Dennis, Abstract Expression, On the Road, Inside Hollywood, Just a Gallery Bum," and "The Scene." There is also an index, another biographical section called "In the Moment" as well as a "Filmography" and Bibliography & Exhibition History." Much of the text is provided by Hopper, but there are excellent sections by Walter Hopps, Victor Bockris and Jessica Hundley. Unlike most collections of photographs there is plenty of meaty text and quotes from interviews in this 10-pound Tachen Metro-Golden Mayer production of a photographic book. This volume is right up there with "SUMO" and some of Tachen's other superb book productions.
Most of the photos in the book are reproduced in black and white, which makes them much more dramatic in appearance. Some of them appear to have originally been shot in color for one kind of magazine or record cover assignment. In at least one case the color record album cover is also reproduced. They usually aren't as interesting as the photos he did strictly for himself. Many of his portraits are interesting because of the locations and backgrounds Dennis chose for the portraits. The dust cover and various subject dividers are a combination of black and white photos toned red, orange, blue or purple. Ditto for the cover.
For older viewers the colors on the book cover may remind them of the primitive four color transparencies people used to stick over their black and white television screens to give a faint illusion that the programs were broadcast in gaudy, garish colors. This was one of the worst parts of the book production, but the editor probably felt it was needed to break up the endless flow of one dramatic black and white photograph after another. Fortunately, a few of those color-toned photographs like the cover were reproduced elsewhere in their true black and white starkness.
Some of my favorite pictures were taken in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr.
"In Selma I had Joan Baez on one side and Peter, Paul and Mary on the other." The fact Dennis was a famous movie star from a very young age, definitely gained him access and acceptance to events that most people would never have had access. Hopper's photographs are taken from right in the midst and bustle of the event. An example of Hopper being in the center of the event can easily be seen in his double-page (396-397) photograph of Ralph David Abernathy at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Rally in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Hopper was right there, up close and as personal as could be. It seems so strange to find this wonderful set of powerful civil rights photographs from the March on Selma in the same book as the ones of other events such as private dinner parties of Hollywood Big Whigs and the making of the movie "The American Dreamer," 1971.
There are so many wonderful pictures that it's difficult to pick out a favorite. The night after I'd first examined the book, several images stuck in my mind, which means they must have impressed me more than some of the others. One of them was on page 458 and was a 1966 color picture of young actress Jane Fonda sprawled out in a very comfortable chair snuggling with Kienholz's art piece "The Quickie." The pose is so natural the viewer will be reminded of their own skinny teenagers lounging around the house looking as relaxed and unconcerned as the family cat. There were lots of other photos that come to mind and that's part of the problem. There are too many outstanding photos in this collection--that's what is so amazing. For the decade covered in this book Dennis Hopper may have been one of the two or three great photojournalists of the period.
The last section of the book is a picture biography of Hopper's entire life. This photo album is great because the pictures used in the different language sections of the book's text are different so the reader gets to see more photographs than if the pictures were simply repeated with each translation of the text. In this section other great photographer's photos of Hopper can be seen. Naturally there are lots of movie stills as part of this section. Dennis Hopper probably never climbed to the status of a Super Star, but he certainly worked with most of the giants of Hollywood, Art and the Music world of his time. And while he may not have become a Super Star Legend for his film work, his photojournalism work may quite possibility be more important and relevant than his film work.
And in case anyone has questions about whether he was really taking pictures when he was typecast as the crazed war photographer in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," he wasn't. Coppola wouldn't let him have any film for his muddy Nikons because he was afraid Hopper would release pictures from the movie epic before the film was released. Too bad, there was certainly plenty of material happening in that motion picture that would have been captured and persevered by Hopper's quirky eye.
This is a real heavy weight of a photography book--maybe one of the best ones ever published. In addition to providing mental food, just carrying the book from room to room will save you a trip to the gym.
(For those people wanting more information on Dennis Hopper and his photography you might enjoy reading my Amazon reader's review of "Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel" by Peter L. Winkler.)