Before I saw the Coppola’s Apocalypse Now the name “Dennis Hopper” meant little more to me than the “other guy” in Easy Rider. I realize now just how wrong that notion was. Hopper’s role in Apocalypse as the manic Vietnam photojournalist spoke to my idealized notion of the impact that a gonzo photographer could have in a chaotic situation, and visa versa. With his back-to-back box office hits of Hoosiers and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and a personal favorite of mine River’s Edge, Dennis was welcomed back into the Hollywood system and I became a student of his past work. While shooting other jobs I would hear the occasional first-hand account of time spent with Dennis from the likes of Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Michael Madsen and Timothy Leary. Not all of the stories cast him in a positive light but they were always the stuff of legend.
To this day I am intrigued by the stunt he pulled at Rice University in 1983 when he (intentionally) almost blew himself up with dynamite. When I asked him about it said he was half out of his mind and it started as a ploy to fake his own death to lose the trail of aTexas drug organization. He said it in such a passive way that I’m not sure if he didn’t want to discuss it or perhaps had no memory of it (after all this was during the period when he had a mental breakdown in the jungles of South America) which has only served to fuel my intrigue.
Dennis became a renowned photographer after he found it impossible to work in Hollywood after an infamous confrontation with director Henry Hathaway. While filming From Hell to Texas Hopper refused for nearly 100 takes of a single scene to follow Hathaway’s direction. He devoted much of this time to snapping images of his illustrious actor and artist friends and developed enough of a reputation that eventually he was being commissioned by upscale publications such as Vogue for portrait assignments and made compelling images when he documented the civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King Jr. He told me during our shoot that he had lost the vast majority of his negatives in “the fire”. I’m not sure of the veracity of that claim as before and after his death several retrospectives of his work were published from that period, most notably Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream and Taschen’s Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961–1967. I was also aware that at least some of his negatives from that period survived since before I was introduced to Dennis as a photographer I had been commissioned to print from his archives for one of his gallery exhibits and a book published by Twin Palms entitled Out Of the Sixties.
I was commissioned by Conde Nast to photograph Dennis for German Vogue at his Venice complex, a magnificent collection of four two-story buildings built by Frank Gehry that served as his home, office, studio and gallery. The floor of the second story was made of shattered glass (sandwiched between layers of solid glass). It was difficult to determine weather standing on the shattered glass and looking through it to the floor below or standing under it looking up through it to the person standing above you felt more precarious. His gallery offered plenty of room to set up my lighting so we decided to start there. Dennis’s art collection was so dense that it hung on walls that were actually sliding panels, 3 or 4 panels deep so he could simply slide out a panel and effectively change all of the art on the wall to suit his mood.
The space was very airy and open and as we began setting up our lighting in the gallery area Dennis and his wife launched into an argument that started ugly and rapidly got worse. We didn’t know what to do. They were having a very loud, graphic, private moment and leaving wasn’t an option as that would require our passing through the combat zone. I dove into a bathroom and closed the door which didn’t turn down the volume but it did serve to make me feel like I made an effort to give them their space, as a bonus I got to spend some quality time admiring a very nice Joel-Peter Witkin print hanging above the toilet. The argument hit a crescendo and after a moment of silence there was the rapid clicking of high-heeled shoes punctuated with the slam of a door as his wife left. I opened the bathroom door to find Dennis unfazed, almost excited as he said “Ready to get this party started?” with a smile.
In spite of his reputatuion Dennis was the perfect subject and host. He loved being on both sides of the camera and to my surprise he had never shot with a medium format camera and was very inquisitive about it. The conversation flowed naturally and when we were done he invited us upstairs to his living area where he was more than happy to regale us with tales of James Dean, Grace Kelly, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Elvis and Easy Rider. We were all aware of how special it was and as we got first hand accounts of humans that we only knew as legend.
The last time I saw Dennis was at a fashion show at the Chateau Marmont. Helmut Newton lived at the Chateau whenever in L.A. and after the show Dennis sat next to me at the bar and introduced me to Helmut as “a fine photographer”, Helmut and I shot each other a look as we each considered if that was a good thing. Dennis ordered a glass of white wine as he directed all of his attention to scrolling through the images on a new digital Leica. Helmut and I were occasionally interupted by Dennis commenting on either the wonders of digital photography or a particular model’s assets. As thrilled as I was to have finally met this legendary photographer who shaded my entire generation’s esthetic I was equally horrified to learn the following morning that Helmut Newton suffered a heart attack and died as he was driving out of the Chateau.