Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album, Royal Academy, London – review

How long ago the 1960s are. At the Royal Academy’s private view for Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album, I spoke to a number of people younger than myself who had never seen Easy Rider, barely even heard of it. Selma to Montgomery, Camelot, The Byrds, Henry Geldzahler, Timothy Leary: just so many misty names.

Only a handful of names have a different resonance: Andy Warhol, Phil Spector, Martin Luther King, Ike & Tina Turner, John F. Kennedy . . . If nothing else, this odd exhibition gives a pleasingly diverse gazetteer of some major figures of the 1960s in the US and shows what these people looked like at intimate distance. That in itself, judging by the opening night, will be a straightforward popular outcome. The rest is more complicated.

Hopper, who died in 2010, was an actor and director. He studied Method at the Actors Center in New York, played with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, and lived out his life from then on as a Hollywood rebel, with a series of difficult relations to drugs, women, authority, and so on. Much more important in the context of this show, Hopper became an artist and collector of the highest rank.

He was Hollywood royalty of a kind, an early buyer of Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein and numerous other mainly American artists. Where Hopper led, others certainly followed; no doubt a part of the credit for the art boom in Hollywood goes to him. No doubt, too, the Royal Academy turns its attention to him as a photographer partly because of his status as an all-round great-man-of-the-arts. He is famous, and a lot of the people in the pictures are, too. That should get the turnstiles ticking over nicely.

In spite of its title, it is not of a lost album, or indeed any album. Rather, it is the remaking of a lost exhibition of photographs which had been shown by Hopper at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum in 1970. The original show was selected and arranged by Hopper himself, and the new one in London recreates as nearly as possible that arrangement.

The prints are the original ones happily recovered, and they are certainly in one sense a pleasure: small, black-and-white prints of beautiful contrast and range, more than 400 of them, bearing the marks of the passage of time which only add to their appeal. They are mounted on card and hung in rows either singly or in twos or threes in long glass vitrines for protection but with no individual frames. Half-close your eyes to look at any panel, and the colours of these prints are extraordinary: arpeggios of exquisite greys, reaching up and down to shrill white and humming black, but concentrated mainly in a detailed and passionate exploration of the mid-tones.

Hopper may not have been a very technical photographer; he used one camera, given to him by his wife, for the whole of the period in the 1960s which is represented here. He used only Tri-X film, the famous fast film made by Kodak from the mid-1950s (in the 35mm size) which allowed photographers to dispense almost entirely with both light-meters and flash. In those choices, Hopper found an instrument that suited him.

The Academy has not had a great reputation as a centre of photography; on the contrary, it has been slow and hesitant to come to it as a serious form. And this show is probably not going to turn that reputation around. It has been made in close co-operation with the foundation responsible for the artist’s works – indeed, is excellent publicity for that foundation – and lacks critical distance in a serious way.

Hopper had a terrific eye. As a collector, and to some extent as a photographer, he had reflexes and a sense of the importance of the moment. Some of his pictures of bullfights and rodeos here are excellent sports photography, isolating the moment that matters from among the unreadable ones before and after which don’t. There are even shades of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment about this aspect of his pictures. He manifestly had the most enormous self-confidence, too. His pictures of people are taken from that proximity which most often cuts off their legs; everybody knew he was taking his pictures. They either gurned for him, playing it up, or they froze. But they couldn’t stop him or get him to go away.

He was voracious, a constant photographer, at least in the period before the 1970 show. He photographed his life as he led it, as many photographers do. But he was a lamentable editor. It is said that he had trouble editing his films, and he most assuredly had trouble editing his photographs. In 1970, it was perhaps exciting to let him put 400 pictures on a wall. But in the echoing rooms of the Royal Academy so many years later (the space allocated is much too big for the work) there should have been a more discriminating eye at work than his own.

It’s a shame. The respectful, almost hagiographic curation simply fails to do its job. It might have been nice to make a claim or two about Hopper as a photographer. The show doesn’t. It tells us – we didn’t doubt it before – that he was a very interesting man. But as a photographer, we are offered no judgment beyond his own self-congratulatory one.

When Hopper curated his original show, he loosely grouped the pictures. Intimate moments with his pals, society, a series of formal studies and so on. Each has some merit, and each has catastrophic flaws.

In his formal studies, for example, although there are certainly one or two successes, he accumulated every cliché of the student vaguely aware of modernism: flat studies of such things as posters peeling off walls or smears on glass, “found sculptures” such as the cloth on a scaffold, industrial details, reflections, store-signs, neon, street-scenes . . . It’s like a lexicon of Americana. He may have been among the early adopters, but he surely wasn’t earlier than Walker Evans, and a lot of what he did is borrowed from such as him.

Hopper tried so desperately hard. Where dozens of artists and photographers have taken pleasure in incongruous billboards, Hopper went and photographed in a billboard factory, completely missing the happenstance element of the thing. Where photographers have rejoiced in quirky circumstantial framing, Hopper got a friend to hold a rusty metal rectangle as a wholly self-conscious framing device. His portraits, I said, are close enough for intimacy, but somehow they are not close enough for insight.

A better show would have sifted through all of this, finding revelations and discarding the grunt work. All photographers take too many pictures; simply to accept them all as interesting or good because the artist became famous is surely a mistake.

Until October 19,

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