The back of the Royal Academy has appeared in many different guises in recent years. Having seen an eclectic mixture of contemporary art, from RA schools shows to Haunch of Venison exhibitions, its stately interiors now host a more sober array. A perspex display case stretches the length of the walls of the three first floor galleries; within are a sequence of black-and-white photographs, grouped or single, almost all the same size and mounted simply on board. These narrate the sights and experiences of Dennis Hopper, actor and director, during the years 1961 to 1967.
This seems an peculiarly apt mode of presentation – unframed and all of equal size – for pictures that capture the decade’s ideals of equality and freedom. The subject matter is delightfully serendipitous; from informal portraits of artists and actors, such as Paul Newman (left), to documentary-style images of a civil rights march in Alabama (above right), to a street scene from a car window (Double Standard, below) to the abstraction of a peeling plaster wall. The display of these images is as close as possible to their original exhibition at Fort Worth, Texas in 1970, after which they were never shown again in public until recently re-discovered by the current exhibition’s curator, Petra Giloy-Hirtz.
The years that Hopper documented saw an intense period of social change, especially in America where the civil rights movement added a serious political dimension to a decade often associated with youthful rebelliousness. He captures the pioneers of Pop Art, the emergence of hippies and Hell’s Angels, but also the passionate speeches of Martin Luther King and the poverty of street children in a manner that is both informal and perfectly composed – worthy of comparison with the great photojournalists Cartier-Bresson and Capa. Hopper’s intense creative phase of photography ended in 1967 when he began directing his seminal film, Easy Rider – but the whole exhibition in hindsight seems to lead up to this very conclusion: the multiple series of images appear like story boards, many small clips from the film of Hopper’s life.
The RA’s Burlington Gardens rooms are almost too large and imposing a venue for such unassuming pictures, which demand you to peer in closer to enjoy the story, and get lost in a real or imagined nostalgia. Equally, the gem-like abstract photographs that beautify the tawdry fabric of a city lose a little of their power in this vast stuccoed space. Though the ‘white cube’ gallery space might seem a little dated now, its sharp design and sixties origins would suit this show. How distant this world is comes sharply to mind with the final few snapshots of indistinct images on a small TV screen of the first man on the moon; now that news is so instantaneous and pervasive it is hard to imagine the need to capture moments of history in this way.