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Hopper has always been in the picture

The actor's photographs bespeak a long-standing passion for more than just a life in film.

April 03, 2006|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Special to The Times

Here comes the artist, dressed in black sweater and trousers, head bowed in concentration and carrying a framed photograph in each hand. This artist, however, happens to be a movie star. Dennis Hopper has taken a day off from playing a colonel on the NBC series "E-Ring" to install an exhibition of his own photographs and other works at Ace Gallery.

Hopper puts down the photographs and starts the guided tour of his past. He saunters down a long corridor already hung with framed black-and-white pictures that he took in the 1960s. "Do you recognize these guys?" he asks, knowing well that most of his friends from that era are almost as famous as he, artists like Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Ed Ruscha.

Hopper, 69, has his salt-and-pepper hair cut stylishly short. His light blue eyes twinkle mischievously as he recalls hanging out at L.A.'s first contemporary art gallery, Ferus. In the low-voltage voice still recognizable from roles in classic films such as "Giant," "Easy Rider" and "Blue Velvet," he tells the stories behind a few photographs.

Of a young Pop artist seated on the floor of his studio, he says, "That's Roy Lichtenstein with the painting that I bought. I think I paid $780 for it."

Hopper pauses before his photograph of a balding man in a cardigan holding a wax mannequin head in his hands. "That's Ed Kienholz," he says. "I got those wax heads from a film I'd worked on and he used them in his installation of 'Barney's Beanery' where I'm one of the characters sitting at the bar."

Kienholz, who co-founded Ferus Gallery in 1957 with Walter Hopps, proved to be an inspirational figure for Hopper because he introduced him to the art of assemblage made from the combination of everyday objects. One of Hopper's assemblages is with his photographs in the exhibition "Los Angeles 1955-1985" at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through July 17. Another is in the show at Ace, along with his photographs from the '60s, some reproduced at monumental scale, and the abstract photographs he has taken since the mid-1980s.

Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, calls Hopper's work "a monumental affirmation of the redemptive value of art ... proof of the transformative genius of photography."

Hopper was interested in art from an early age, but it accelerated after his family moved from the family farm in Kansas to San Diego in 1950. He became an apprentice at the La Jolla Playhouse, where he learned about photography from set designer Hank Milam. "He took a lot of pictures, and I started thinking about it as an art form," Hopper says. "I took photos from that time, but they have disappeared."

Thanks to Milam's friendship with Mary Price, wife of actor and art collector Vincent Price, in 1954 Hopper was invited to their home in Beverly Hills. "I saw my first abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Richard Diebenkorn. I was 18 and I'd never seen an abstract painting before. When I saw those, I got it immediately," he says.

After just a few years in L.A., Hopper had achieved a measure of notoriety both for his role in "Rebel Without a Cause" and his friendship with its star, James Dean. Under contract with Warner Brothers, Hopper took on a rebellious identity after Dean's death in a car crash in 1955. Already prone to drinking and experimenting with drugs, he insulted director Henry Hathaway as well as a few studio heads, according to a 1988 biography by Elena Rodriguez. His 1961 marriage to Brooke Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, could have advanced Hopper's career but for his attitude problem.

About that time, Hayward bought Hopper a Nikon for his birthday. "He never left the house without it," she wrote in "1712 North Crescent Heights," a 2001 a book of his photographs edited by their daughter, Marin Hopper. "It turned out that he was as natural a photographer as he was an actor," Hayward wrote, and he took pictures of everything and everyone that intrigued him.

"I'd screwed myself in the movies," Hopper admits now. "The only creative outlet I had at that time was painting and taking photographs. That's what I did most of the days." By his mid-20s, he was acting so rarely that he had time to hang out at Ferus, meeting similarly youthful artists who were kindred spirits in their affiliation with Beat poets, jazz musicians and a new realism in film.

In 1961, a fire destroyed Hopper and Hayward's Bel-Air home and hundreds of his paintings. "I tried to paint again after the fire, but I couldn't," he says. After the couple moved into the smaller home on Crescent Heights, Hopper avenged the loss of his paintings by dedicating himself to photography.

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