Picture of an actor playing a picture-maker taken by a picture-making actor: Dennis Hopper’s candid portrait of “Blow-Up” star Devid Hemmings, 1968.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DENNIS HOPPER’S FILM CAREER STANDS TODAY as one of the iconic cautionary tales about what happens when one’s talent enters into a death struggle with one’s demons. He was the contemporary of another troubled actor, James Dean, but instead of smashing himself to pieces in a car crash all at once, like his friend, he was destined to unravel slowly, over decades, like a hideless baseball wobbling over the rear fence, caroming from suspension to firing, from screw-up to royal screw-up. Every time the candle of Hopper’s undeniable gifts began to truly glow brightly, he’d get too close to it and burn his eyebrows off.
Today, Hopper’s long stretch as an actor, writer and director has largely been boiled down, in the public memory, to his creative energies on the era-defining Easy Rider, with many of his other near misses blurring into the haze of the unique amnesia that is showbiz’ permanent dream state. However, since his passing in 2010, it is his other output, the 18,000 images he made as an amateur photographer between 1961 and 1968, that have burnished his legend, making his informal snaps of life among the famous and anonymous of Los Angeles in the ’60’s the stuff of coffee table books and gallery shows. Gifted with a Nikon on his birthday in 1961, Hopper trained it constantly on the people he worked with, as well as those he would, sadly, never work with. The result is a portfolio that is as essential as Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in its depiction of the dreams, excesses and delusions among the showmakers and the stars they spawned in that vanished decade.
Hopper’s 1962 portrait of fellow cineaste Andy Warhol.
During his life, various collections of Hopper’s work, including In Dreams and Photographs 1961-1967 were published in book form, and a comprehensive showing at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art accelerated interest among people who were only passingly familiar with his acting work. In the years since his death, his images have increasingly served as a time capsule for a Hollywood that was sandwiched between the end of the old studio system and the invasion of a younger generation of actors/directors that would include the Scorceses and Spielbergs of a new era. Hopper found a different kind of voice outside the world of movies, but one of his quotes about his first career seemed to portend the power of his second: “I was very shy, and it was a lot easier for me to communicate if I had a camera between me and people.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY DISPARAGED as some kind of intrusion, the visual equivalent of picking someone’s pocket or peeping through their bedroom window. And while some shooters certainly invade, even steal, privacy from people, there are many more gentler practitioners, artists compelled by curiosity rather than predation. I think the difference between these two approaches shows in the work. At least I hope it does.
The photographic street scene is greatly altered in this Year Of The Great Hibernation. Making pictures of people is severely hampered when there are, literally, fewer full faces in view. Our choice to purposely avoid personal contact cuts that crop down yet again. And without faces, the street is only, well, the street. Faces provide photographers with that divine mix of solved and unsolved mystery. It is, after all, our inability to absolutely plumb the inner thoughts of others with our puny cameras that make our little acts of emotional eavesdropping so addictive.
In recent months, I have been giving myself a refresher course on what it is about street work that “works” for me. I keep coming back to images very similar to the one you see here, the instinctual capture of a moment on a pier in Ventura, California some three years ago. Something about the exchange between the woman and the two males continues to fascinate me. Maybe it’s because the woman, whose face is the only one of the three in clear view, is in such a position of dominance. She clearly seems to be in charge of whether the conversation continues, and on whose terms. She looks, at once, impatient, engaged, weary, cold, contemptuous, even maternal. I can’t nail her down, and that’s intriguing. The males are almost certainly boys, or are at least servile in the way that only boys can be in the presence of an adult woman. Either way, their energy is greatly diminished in comparison to hers. The picture does, then, what street work does best…at least for me, in that it starts conversation, but cannot end it.
Of course, some street photography is not “about” anything but itself, that is, a random momentary arrangement of props and shapes. And it would be a mistake to label such images as any less or more “meaningful” just because no clear intent is implied in them. A sunset is, for some, symbolic of many things, but for others, it’s just a picture of a sunset. As to whether it’s somehow wrong to spy on the feelings or interactions of passersby with the intent of trapping them inside a box, I’ll leave that to the philosophers. Me, I’m thinking about the grand parade of lives passing before me, which I regard as the grandest feast since the invention of Hot Pockets…