Dennis Hopper’s photography archive—the Hopper Art Trust—resides in an office on the top floor of a squat building on the Sunset Strip, in Los Angeles. Its neighbors are insurance and mortgage offices, and for the most part it shares their appearance: filing cabinets here, a desk there, a wall of bookshelves with plastic binders. The binders are filled with contact sheets containing upward of eighteen thousand images that Hopper created with his Nikon F camera between 1961 and 1967, when he was just another actor with a stalled-out career, in the years leading up to “Easy Rider,” which he starred in and directed. That movie, released in 1969, would make him something more than a Hollywood star; for a time, he was a pop-culture deity. And, for whatever reason, it also turned him into a former photographer. With a few exceptions (including an ill-advised Hustler shoot, in the eighties), Hopper rarely picked up a camera again for the rest of his life.
Hopper died, of cancer, in 2010, at the age of seventy-four. Since then, his daughter Marin Hopper has been an energetic steward of his photographic legacy. She has helped to shepherd gallery shows, museum exhibitions, and the publication of a succession of compact monographs—“The Lost Album,” “Drugstore Camera,” “Colors: The Polaroids.” To be clear: Hopper was no mere celebrity shutterbug. He shot album covers, gallery announcements, and images for Vogue. In 1963, Artforum saluted his work with the headline “Welcome brave new images!” His photograph “Double Standard”—an L.A. streetscape seen through a car windshield—is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
Whatever the occasion or assignment, Hopper always seemed to be shooting for himself, satisfying an insatiable eye. A new collection, “In Dreams” (Damiani), edited by the photographer Michael Schmelling, to whom Marin Hopper granted unlimited access to the archive, zeroes in on the idea of Hopper as an idiosyncratic, compulsive collector of visual experience. Schmelling culled about ninety photographs from the Hopper Trust, most of which have never been published, and which have the spirited, unfussy feel of outtakes. In a brief essay, Schmelling writes that he made his selections around the notion of how Hopper lived “day to day,” compiling a diaristic sequence of images with the aim of “integrating his roles as photographer, husband, and actor.”
Hopper received the Nikon as a gift on his twenty-fifth birthday, in May, 1961, from the actress Brooke Hayward, who would become his first wife. Her father, the agent and producer Leland Hayward, was a camera nut, and Brooke, whose mother was the actress Margaret Sullavan, paid three hundred and fifty-one dollars for it. “Dennis had the greatest eye of anyone I’ve ever known,” Hayward told me for a story I wrote last year about her marriage to Hopper. “He wore the camera around his neck all day long.”
The couple married that fall. In the spring of 1963, the two bought a house at 1712 North Crescent Heights Boulevard, in the Hollywood Hills, and went about filling it with Warhols, Lichtensteins, Rauschenbergs, and campy Art Nouveau goodies. The house became a gathering place for an indelible cultural moment, a way station for Andy Warhol, Terry Southern, Ike and Tina Turner, and Black Panthers.
There’s an old adage that great subjects make a great photographer. Hopper, overstimulated by everything that the decade had to offer, enjoyed a certain ease of access. He shot Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Rauschenberg, the Byrds, Allen Ginsberg, Claes Oldenburg, Timothy Leary, John Wayne, Paul Newman, Phil Spector, the Grateful Dead. He and his camera were at the March on Washington, the riots on the Sunset Strip, and the Human Be-In. The contact sheets at the Hopper Art Trust, where I spent a few days recently, suggest that the actor was supernaturally everywhere in the sixties, from Warhol’s Factory to post-riot Watts to the studio where the Rolling Stones happened to be recording “Paint It, Black.”