THE PULSE OF THE SIXTIES

~ Posted by Simon Willis, July 3rd 2014

In the March/April 2014 issue of Intelligent Life, Bryan Appleyard wrote about Tri-X, the black-and-white film beloved of many of the greatest photographers, which has its 60th birthday this year. Tri-X gave photographers two things: rich grainy visuals and ease of use. It’s the film on which Don McCullin captured his famous Vietnam soldier with the 1000-yard stare, Sheila Rock her London punks and Anton Corbijn his moody, grizzled portraits of Tom Waits. “Grain is life”, Corbijn told Appleyard. What’s more, “if your exposure was slightly wrong,” Appleyard wrote, “you could still get a decent shot”. It was a film that suited “the casual, go anywhere, do anything mood of the Sixties”.

That made it a good choice for another man who was on the road with his camera at the time. “Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album”, on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, collects more than 400 of his photographs. They were taken between 1961 and 1967, between a low point in his film career and one of its highest, “Easy Rider”. During those six years, he said, photography was “the only creative outlet I had”. He went at it with experimental gusto, and never settled on a subject or style. The exhibition has Hopper the portraitist, Hopper the street photographer and Hopper the photojournalist. Some of the best pictures in the show are abstracts—shots of torn cloth or blistered paint with lovely interplays of jagged edges and soft curves. One photograph shows a close-up of a wall, with little clumps of concrete casting long diagonal shadows, a beautiful study in light and dark. It could almost be an aerial shot of trees in a field at sunset. In one of the wall notes Hopper says, “I am an Abstract Expressionist”. He could use Tri-X, a film known for its depths and contrasts, to make fine images of flat surfaces.

But he could also use it to make flat photographs, without the grainy drama that McCullin and Corbijn achieved. If their exposure could be slightly wrong and the result still good, Hopper’s is sometimes very wrong. One shot, from a love-in in 1967, is a mess of bleached sunlight. But while Hopper might not have mined Tri-X’s visual possibilities, he used its "go anywhere" potential to the full. The exhibition shows his eye for the era and its movements. He photographed the people he hung out with, and they make up a Sixties who’s who: Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Phil Spector and Brian Jones, Jane Fonda and Paul Newman (above). Much of that hanging out was done with hippies and Hell’s Angels. He went to Selma, Alabama to capture the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, and he was there on Sunset Strip when the hippie riots broke out in 1966. If the Sixties had several pulses, Hopper had his finger on the strongest of them.

Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until October 19th

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life

Image Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust ("Paul Newman", 1964)