Dennis Hopper and Friends

At last! The full story of how HCP cornered the market in Dennis Hopper prints for one of its fall, 1982, exhibitions. The show was a roll-call of famous names from a recently-vanished era.

Early last fall, I was asked by Walter Hopps, the director of the Menil Collection, to consider printing some photographs from a set of negatives made in the early Sixties by Dennis Hopper. I knew of Hopper as an actor, especially in Easy Riderand Rebel Without a Cause, and was aware of his role as a director, but had no idea he was also a photographer. When I went to visit Hopps to look at the contact sheets and discuss the printing, Hopps was immediately called away and I was left alone with Hopper's contact sheets.

The goal was to produce a set of prints for a show Hopper was going to have in a London gallery. The first few contacts were of young women self-consciously taking their clothes off and attempting to look beguiling and experienced. Each sheet, each whole roll, would be of one woman in approximately the same pose with the photographer standing at approximately the same place. As I shuffled through the first five or six contact sheets, I began to wonder about printing this dreck, all this sloppy lighting, wideangle distortion, seemingly nervous inability to draw anything out of the subject.

Then I stumbled on a contact sheet of a man and a woman, who turned out to be Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda on their wedding day. At last! I thought. Stars! Sure enough, as I looked through the next sheets, there they all were: Peter Fonda, Paul Newman, John Wayne, and more! Andy Warhol, Ike and Tina Turner, The Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead, Terry Southern. Allen Ginsberg. The Byrds, Brian Jones, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenburg, Timothy Leary, James Brown, Jasper Johns, even Henry Geldzahler. Film! Art! Music!

I took the job.

What a job. The negatives were just like most of my old stuff: about twenty stops of contrast on each one, solid black highlights, nothing in the shadows. Still, they were fun to see, all these pictures of all these celebrities taken so many years ago when they were filled with something they don't seem to be filled with anymore.

Once in the darkroom, I realized the Houston Center for Photography should have a set of these prints for a show, and Hopps agreed, which is how the HCP's Dennis Hopper and His Friends came about.

I asked Hopps about Hopper and discovered all of this:
Hopps is the custodian of Hopper's negatives. The two consider themselves to be "blood brothers" although Hopps didn't elaborate on the phrase. Hopper worked exclusively with 35 mm and has never printed his own work. This bunch of stuff the HCP showed is apparently a very small portion of the work. I mentioned to Hopps that I thought it was pretty remarkable the way Hopper had searched out all these people and organized them into all these pictures.

Hopps said no, it was important to understand that he didn't search them out, they were just part of his life. Even his influences were celebrities: his first flirtations with making art other than movies came from actor James Dean, who had become interested in sculpting in clay. Art and celebrity were just part of Hopper's life, his ordinary life.

"The way he saw came from the way he'd been seen," Hopps says. "The pictures look like stock shots, publicity stills from movies, because that's what he was used to seeing. He'd been photographed over and over that way. so he photographed his friends that way."

By 1966 or so, Hopper had stopped photographing and was immersed in film writing, directing, producing, and acting. Now the Rice Media Center is bringing him to Houston for a retrospective of his films in April. Hopps has goaded Hopper into picking up his camera again for a new series of pictures to be shown in conjunction with the retrospective. Hopps suggested that Hopper continue to photograph "close to home" so the new pictures will be from his immediate environment.

By Dave Crossley