Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

Dennis Hopper's Drugstore Camera

Newly published Instamatic shots show a gentle, contemplative side to the hell-raising Hopper

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Untitled (cowboy in cemetery)
Untitled (cowboy in cemetery)© Dennis Hopper, Courtesy of The Hopper Art Trust

Who: Much like his deranged photo-journalist in Apocalypse Now, Dennis Hopper was rarely without his camera. But the maniacal Hollywood outlaw capable of blowing himself up with dynamite (on purpose) and firing a machine gun at the walls of his house in his drug-fueled days, was by contrast a graceful and subtle photographer. These black and white pictures chronicle the time he spent during the 60s and 70s in Taos, New Mexico, a sleepy town at the foot of the Sangre de Christo mountains, discovered while the actor was scouting locations for Easy Rider.

What: Drugstore Cowboy, a collection of unpublished photographs of family, friends, road trips and desert-scapes around Taos, taken on the fly with an Instamatic camera. For decades the remote small town has been a magnet for outsiders and artists seeking refuge amid the sage and aspen trees: DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Georgia O’Keefe (who famously painted its Ranchos church) all spent time there. Hopper bought a 22-room adobe house (christened the “Mud Palace”) in 1970 which soon filled up with a shifting counterculture cast of hippies and drifters. He wrestled with the footage of The Last Movie there, his ill-starred directorial follow up to Easy Rider, screening snippets in the old Taos movie theatre, El Cortez, which he later bought and turned into his home and art studio.

Why? The collection is a bewitching time capsule of an era. Taos exerted a lifelong hold on Hopper and was where he chose to be buried in 2010. “His coffin was lowered into the sacred ground as a band of Hell’s Angels lovingly gunned the engines of their motorcycles in a final tribute. And my father rode off into the sunset for good,” writes the eldest of his four children, Marin Hopper, in an accompanying essay. May 17th, Hopper’s birthday, is now officially “Dennis Hopper Day” in the state of New Mexico.

Dennis Hopper: Drugstore Camera is out now, published by Damiani.

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