At the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition of Dennis Hopper’s photographic collection The Lost Album I heard one apparently disenchanted visitor saying, “This is just like walking through an exhibition of all my Instagram photos.”
The photos really do have the kind of candid, autobiographical feel that is like a collection of contemporary phone camera snaps. I don’t mean that to diminish Hopper’s work, though: the photos have a metonymic quality, where an image stands for an important moment or for a sentiment or for a lifestyle. This is how we do photos now, all selfies and tweeting photos of our meals. It wasn’t the established practice when he was doing it, though. Sure, people took snapshots. But who would think to exhibit snapshots as art? To present them in a way that the whole world could see them instead of treating them as personal treasures for private consumption only? Rather than these photos being like an Instagram collection, I think photo sharing services like Instagram represent our changing mindset about what candid snapshots and collections of personal memorabilia mean to us. They’re social or shareable now in a way that was once only accessible to celebrities like Hopper.
As I went through the exhibition I realized a large part of what appealed to me was its anthropological aspect (you can take the girl out of academia but you can’t take academia out of the girl, it seems.) Several of the prints were series focusing on people being captured going about their daily lives or involved in events of significance to them. Hopper captured people in situations of grinding poverty, in utterly opulent wealth, in protest, in celebration. Though Hopper wasn’t a researcher, his photographs reminded me of the fraught position of imagery in qualitative research. Researchers and artists are not neutral observers but actively influence perceptions of the communities they become involved with. This isn’t exactly an earth-shattering revelation, of course, but The Lost Album really brought that message home for me partly because of its content and partly because of the collection’s own remarkable story.
Hopper first exhibited The Lost Album at the Forth Worth Arts Center in Texas in 1970. He personally selected the images. Included in the collection are such gems as Hopper’s photos of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama voting rights march of 1965, of the Hell’s Angels biker community, of hippies in San Francisco parks, and of a riot on Sunset Strip. Hopper also photographed many celebrities of the period: Andy Warhol, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda… the list goes on. In sum, it’s a remarkable collection of iconic images of 1960s American history and culture.
Following their irst exhibition the photographs were lost and only rediscovered after Hopper’s death in 2010. Viewing this collection as an American in London gave me a weird sense of nostalgia and displacement. Most of all I think what I took away was Hopper’s sense of being in the moment, of being present to record those instances that were really important both to him personally and in a wider cultural and national sense.
That’s what I enjoyed most about the exhibition. For me it was both grandiose and specific. I walked into a room where clips of Easy Rider were being played to the song “The Weight” by The Band. My dad used to play that song on the guitar all the time. What will you discover, in the universal and in the particular, in The Lost Album?