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Vulture Interviews Dennis Hopper, Photographer

Before his self-directed performance in 1969's Easy Rider made him the Dennis Hopper you know, he was but a promising young photographer documenting the sixties in all its cinematic glory. On display at Shafrazi through October 24 is his new show, "Sign of the Times," a collection of Hopper's pre-'67 photos of Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and other twentieth-century art-world luminaries, along with a dozen of his never-before-seen "billboard paintings." Vulture spoke with Hopper this week about the show, his career, and a job opening at the Vatican.

You edited down your collection of photos from about 10,000 to 400 for this exhibition. How did you decide?
It wasn't easy, actually. Well, we first got it down to 600. First 800, then 600, then 400. There's a lot of photographs not included, but most of them are ones that you probably know already, that you've certainly seen. It was hard. The most we've ever exhibited before was 130 of the stills. This is by far the biggest.

Do you have a favorite?
Nah, I like many.

Where did the title come from?
I just thought because I'm using billboards ... signs of our times.

It's amazing that you were doing films and taking these photographs all at the same time. Is there another medium you identify with?
Well, I never was a musician. I love music, I had a lot of friends who were musicians. I could never play guitar. I was forced into playing piano as a child, and I got away from that as quickly as I could. I had a LOT of friends who could play guitar. Why would they need me to go "dink dink dink"?

When you're friends with Neil Young and Willie Nelson, there isn't really a need.
Where are you going to sit, in a corner?

Obama is the first president to include abstract art, a Rauschenberg, in the White House's collection. Why do you think it took so long?
Oh, really? That's great! Why do I think it took so long? [Laughs] Because the Republicans were in power.

Weren't you a Republican until Obama?
I was a Republican. I was a Democrat, then a Republican, then a Democrat again. I think he's doing great things, if anybody knows what the right thing is right now.

What would you be your dream subject to photograph?
I started out shooting flat, on walls, so that it had no depth of field, because I was being photographed all the time as an actor. And if you notice, there aren't a lot of photographs [in the show] of actors — Dean Stockwell, Paul Newman. I thought I was an imposition to the actors who were being photographed all the time. I really wanted the flat-on-painter kind of surface. I did that for a long time. Then the artists. I really started taking photographs of artists. They wanted me to take photographs. They wanted posters and things. I was hanging out with them. I photographed the ones I thought were going to make it. I wasn't really working as an actor during this period, and I thought, Well, if I'm not going to be able to work as an actor, I might as well be able make something that's going to be credible. So I took photographs of Martin Luther King and Selma, Montgomery, as history, and selecting artists that I thought would make it. I met most of the Pop artists before they ever had shows.

Are you still shooting? Do you have an ideal person in mind to shoot now?
I haven't changed much. I carry a camera around when I remember to. I take a picture every now and then.

Do you still shoot artists?
I recently visited David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer in Paris. Damien Hirst, when he was at the Lever House, I spent a morning photographing him. Jeff Koons. Julian Schnabel, people like that, friends. Prince. Artists are more willing, they're gung ho. They're not used to it. They like hanging out.

Do you ever shoot landscapes or anything?
Yeah. This exhibition is all photographs before Easy Rider. The billboards were done more recently, but the images were shot in 1961, '67. I started writing Easy Rider in 1967 with Peter, and we shot in '68, and it came out in '69. These are all 1961 and 1967, and I never took any photographs after that until I was in Japan, I think in '89. From '69 to '84, it was ten or fifteen years that I didn't take any photographs.

Because you were so busy acting?
No, because I wanted to direct movies. I couldn't direct and shoot. I had to put my camera away. I don't crop my photographs. Then I had Easy Rider, and I couldn't get another movie, so I lived in Mexico City for a couple of years. I lived in Paris for a couple of years. I didn't take any photographs, and then I went to Japan and saw a Nikon used. I bought it, and I just started, like an alcoholic. I shot 300 rolls of film. That was the beginning of me starting again, and then I went digital.

What year was that? Were you initially resistant to the switch?
When it first started, it was inferior and the inks weren't archival. As soon as the inks became archival, I went digital. To me, it's like the difference between developing something in chemical or being able to spray the light. It's like painting with light, and the computer is reading the light. When a digital photograph looks right, it looks like it was painted.

We remember when you modeled for Adam Kimmel. Are you still doing
any collaborations like that?

I modeled originally for Boss, and I had a couple of shows with Hogan in Italy. My oldest daughter was the fashion director at Elle for ten years, and now she works for Tod's and Hogan, so that's how I got involved.

You recently lent your voice to a GPS device. How'd that come about?
They approached me. [Does a voice]. "You're going the wrong way!" I think it was hooked into some sort of charitable thing.

Bill Viola was recently approached by the Vatican to be part of an initiative to restore the relationship between faith and art, and he declined. If the Pope approached you, would you do it?
I don't see a reason to say no. I don't know what the difference would be between working for the Pope or working for a rabbi, or working for a Wall Street bank or a TV commercial. I think going from Pop art to Abstract Expressionism in America erased those barriers — "I can't do this because the Pope is a terrible person." Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, whether they had happy relationships with him, did work for the Pope. I'm certainly not Catholic, but I wouldn't see any reason to turn it down. I love Bill Viola's work, and certainly, if he doesn't want to do it, he should turn it down. It's his prerogative. But I can't find anything in my life that says, "Well, you can't work for the Pope." That hasn't stopped me from doing commercials. If you're in fine arts, you can't do commercials. If you work in television, you don't do commercials — if you work in television, you don't make movies. With all these barriers, I just say, "Come on. This is ridiculous."

Are you working on any films now?
I'm writing a screenplay and I'm working on a series in Albequerque, New Mexico. I've been there since May, and I'm there through October 18, so I've been there six months. We did thirteen episodes last year, and now we're on the tenth. It's called Crash. Paul Haggis, the director of the Academy Award–winning movie, is producing it. People are making a series. We're on the Starz network, and we open September 18. Next Friday at 10 o'clock.

What's the screenplay?
All I can say is that I have financing. It's the first time I've had it in sixteen years. I can't talk about the subject matter, it's too much — I'm not telling anyone, it's not you.

On the monograph for the exhibition outside, there's a quote from you in Life magazine from 1970, where you say that "We've become a new kind of human being. We're taking on more freedom and risk." It's a really broad statement. What about the cultural moment right now? Do you think we're changing again?
It's hard for me. I don't know if it's a thing of getting older, but I don't get out as much to see as much work as I used to. I'm involved in my own work and trying to catch up in trying to do stuff I wanted to do 30 years ago. I'm just catching up with the sixties now. Now I'm looking at what I've been doing the past twenty, fifteen years. I find that most of the things that I walk into that I see, I saw in the sixties, and it's not new to me, but it's new to other people. There's so much of it. Because in the sixties it was a lot easier. You'd go into a show, and you'd never seen anything like that. And you could make a judgment if you wanted to, but you'd never seen it before. It's not the original idea, it's the next — the post-. There was an underground, but maybe there were twenty people. It wasn't thousands. It was obvious who they were to me. In New York, being in the communication capital of the world at the time, helped.

But I don't see any big changes. I see individual artists who I think are really interesting. There's a young man, Robin Rhode — he's a performance artist who photographs himself doing these things in the street. He does a lot of chalk drawings. He'll photograph straight down, so it looks like he's throwing a basketball, but he's really lying down. He's wonderful. I just bought one of his pieces. Hirst, Koons, Schnabel. I have some really good friends. David Hockney I admire. Anselm Kiefer I just met and spent a day with in Paris.

Do you consider yourself more of an actor-director or a photographer?
I think, in the end, it's how you're perceived, I guess. I love acting, I love directing, I love writing most of the time. I love taking photographs. I don't have a favorite, but I would hate to give up acting, because if I give up acting, my livelihood and the rest just falls into place. I'm a compulsive creator.

Photo: Patrick McMullan