Saturday, March 20, 2010

Love Letter, Straight From My Heart

Actor, painter, photographer, director, and
all-around Renaissance Man, Dennis Hopper

The sheer heft of Dennis Hopper's latest photography book, Photographs, 1961-1967, makes this 530-page volume worth the $700 price tag (now marked down to $465.11).  I got it in the mail from, and ensconced in a sturdy blue-linen box, it's bigger than a Guttenberg Bible.

As well it should be, given its over-the-top subject.  With essays by Jessica Hundley, the late Walter Hopps and Hopper's gallerist Tony Shafrazi, a portrait of Hopper the crazed genius comes through. Hopps's introduction, The Taos Incident, sets the stage for the kaleidoscopic imagery that follows, with his account of a visit to Hopper's New Mexican abode sometime during the 1970s.  During that trip, the purpose of which was to retrieve contact sheets and negatives for an upcoming retrospective, Hopps arrived in the midst of one of Dennis's manic episodes, riddling the walls of his own living room with a submachine gun.  

Photographer and painter Ed Ruscha, 1964

This is no "vanity" project by an otherwise marginally-talented celebrity.  Hopper was trained as an Abstract-Expressionist painter by no less than Thomas Hart Benton.  Hopper applied his aesthetic training and instincts to photography when he was given a camera by friend and acting mentor James Dean during the filming of George Steven's 1956 epic, Giant.

Hopper went crazy with the Nikon, and went through hundreds of rolls of Kodak Tri-X, particularly during the 1960s, when he was more-or-less exiled from Hollywood because of his bad boy reputation.  Many of the photographs printed herein are candids, as well as surrealistically-composed shots of showbiz friends and colleagues, such as Tina and Ike Turner, John Wayne, Peter and Jane Fonda, and denizens of the L.A. art scene like Shafrazi, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.  But what really makes his style gel are his gritty and straightforward black-and-white documentary shots of urban Los Angeles.

New York City, c. 1963

Hopper's exacting eye takes us on excursions across the United States, and especially to south of the border, into Tijuana.  His Mexican photographs are his quietest, and most poignant.  Hopper's images of rural and railroad scenes in the Mexican state of Durango alone make for a remarkable monograph of photography that transcends its travel and tourist origins.

Robert Fraser, Tijuana, 1965

If your coffee table is sturdy enough to accommodate this giant tome, I recommend gracing it with the most crucial period of this larger-than-life icon of the 1960s avant-garde art scene.  Dennis Hopper's work is both entertaining and enduring, and belongs on the same book shelves with such kindred spirits as Garry Winogrand, Louis Faurer, Weegee, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank.

Painter James Rosenquist, 1964

Visit Taschen's website to view a PDF of this fascinating book.