Hopper the Photographer

© The Dennis Hopper Trust, 2011

A book of the actor-artist’s work reveals how he shot the ’60s before revolutionizing them in movies.

It was James Dean who first told Dennis Hopper to pick up a camera. He thought it would make Hopper, then 18 and with a small part in Rebel Without a Cause, a good director. While anyone who’s ever seen Easy Rider knows Dean was right, it has taken many more years for the world to realize that Hopper was an equally good photographer.

Hopper’s photography gets its due with Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-67. First published as a $1,500 limited-edition art book, the new hardcover edition ($70), out in April, presents hundreds of photos by Hopper, who died last May at 74, capturing the cultural upheaval and creative flowering of the ’60s. With a Nikon strapped around his neck, Hopper seemed to ride every one of the decade’s currents. In between acting, the self-described “gallery bum” threw himself into the nascent pop-art world. He documented the Selma marches. He photographed for Vogue. He shot his co-stars in unguarded moments on film sets. And he hung with music revolutionaries like Ike and Tina Turner at his home on Crescent Heights in Hollywood. “These people were also his friends, so his portraiture has this amazing intimacy because it was Dennis behind the lens,” says co-author Jessica Hundley, who spent more than 100 hours interviewing Hopper for the book.

It’s what makes Hopper’s photos of the entertainment world — many previously unpublished — unique. There’s a between-takes spontaneity, the kind of filmic vision you’d expect from a man who was about to usher in the new age of independent cinema. They also betray the eager, curious eye of a kid who hightailed it out of Dodge City, Kansas, to take everything in. Hopper, who grew up on an isolated farm five miles out of town, recounted the effect of seeing his first film: “Right away it hit me! … The world on that screen was the real world, and I felt as if my heart would explode. I wanted so much to be a part of it. That’s why … I had to make films! It justified my existence.”