Dennis Hopper’s photography that captured Los Angeles


The image is a pure cacophony, a distillation of Los Angeles as a rowdy streetscape, the motorized city as information overload. At a multi-lane intersection, traffic lights and directional signs jostle for attention. A billboard states that “smart women cook with gas in power-balanced homes”. A pedestrian stands at a crosswalk as a 1961 Chevy Impala faces a stretch of tarmac, appearing to stare directly into the camera lens. Two avenues, lined with electric poles, fork and retreat towards a mountainous horizon. Overhead power lines – twenty of them at least – slice the image along laser diagonals; they resemble the lines of perspective that an artist draws and then erases from an image. Any illusion of depth they create is countered by the way the whole overloaded panorama is framed in windscreen glass, which flattens the image and indicates that it was taken from the driver’s seat. ‘a car. A rear-view mirror reveals traffic slowing down behind us: we’re at a standstill. Straight ahead, a pair of “Standard” signs — the type that once marked Los Angeles’ ubiquitous gas stations — swing open like albatross wings. (The advertised price of gas is 30.9¢ a gallon.) If anything can be said to ground this compositional mess, a noisy vision that seems to want to atomize our gaze, it’s these two signs that give the photograph its pun title: “Double Standard.”

Dennis Hopper took this dizzying photograph with a thirty-five millimeter Nikon his wife, Brooke Hayward, gave him as a present for his twenty-fifth birthday, shortly after they met on a Broadway flop, “Mandingo,” in the spring of 1961. Their electric courtship prompted a hasty marriage in August. As a couple, they were, as Hayward put it, “oil and water”: he, a no -self-destructive Hollywood conformist, whose screen career was in the doldrums; she, a Hollywood royal (her parents were Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward) and divorced mother of two young sons, whose budding acting career was on the rise.

But playing should not be their primary goal. Hopper and Hayward were bound by a mutual love for all things visual – painting, sculpture, photography – and went on to build an enviable art collection, one of the best of the time, providing significant early patronage to people like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Ed Ruscha. (Works the couple bought on a shoestring, often from Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery, could now be worth hundreds of millions.) Their home at 1712 North Crescent Heights Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills, which they filled with avant-garde art and campy treasures, was known as the Prado of Pop, a place Warhol compared to an amusement park. It was in itself a kind of installation, a collaborative experience of life as art that happened to be a family home.

“Double Standard” is probably the best known of the eighteen thousand images Hopper created with his 1961 Nikon around the time he started shooting “Easy Rider”, in early 1968, when his marriage fuel with Hayward finally exploded. at the top. The photograph resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and, as LA visual distillations go, it’s one of the greatest. Hopper, by the way, was not just a weekend photographer; his photography was featured in vogue and art forum, in gallery ads and on album covers. He also toured for his own pleasure. Hayward often went through her husband’s contact sheets, helping him select the best shots. In my research, I too found myself looking at his contact sheets and negative tapes, including the one containing “Double Standard”, which I was able to peruse at the Hopper Art Trust, Hopper’s photography warehouse. This particular image was taken one day in the early sixties, after Hopper set off from 1712 in his Corvair convertible. He drove west to meet two visitors from New York: Richard Bellamy, the founder of the influential Green Gallery; and Henry Geldzahler, the versatile horsefly of the art world and rookie curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hopper snapped nine images of the East Coast art mavens as they lounged around a patio with sunglasses on, then he and Geldzahler hopped into the Corvair.

Hopper wanted to bring Geldzahler to Foster & Kleiser, the commercial billboard factory on Washington Boulevard at Vermont Avenue, a regular stop on Hopper’s tour of Los Angeles (he photographed subjects as varied as Ike and Tina Turner there and artist James Rosenquist.) Antwerp-born and voraciously social Geldzahler was one of the few curators willing to reach out to Pop art, as Hopper and Hayward had done with their collection. The link between billboards and pop was obvious. As Hopper and Geldzahler were driving east on Santa Monica Boulevard, historic Route 66, they caught a light at the intersection with Melrose Avenue and North Doheny Drive in West Hollywood. Hopper lifted the Nikon and took the shot – just once – just as the light turned green. When I spoke with Gerard Malanga, the poet and photographer who in the sixties helped Warhol create his serigraphs, he told me that Hopper had a particular talent for this kind of “grab shot” – an image drawn and well framed. which freezes an indelible moment in time.

Had Geldzahler suggested the hit? Had Hopper chattered about gas stations and billboards? According to Hopper, he was just thrilled to see one of his favorite Foster & Kleiser billboards – “Smart Women Cooking With Gas in Power-Balanced Homes” – on his way to Foster & Kleiser. . “I liked the billboard,” Hopper later said. “I loved the idea of ​​the Route 66 sign being there, and it was just something that I had put off taking for a while. I drive so much in LA, and I’m such a visual person, I collect sort of the things that I want to do, that I want to do. Hopper thought about buying the “Smart Women” billboard, thinking he might be able to get it for seven hundred dollars once he At Foster & Kleiser that day, Geldzahler, on his own, marveled when “the gigantic billboard painters—the original photo-realists—created timeless California artifacts.”

Hopper took about a dozen photos of Geldzahler at the Billboard Factory, then, while driving west on Hollywood Boulevard near Musso & Frank Grill, he and Geldzahler encountered the odd sight of a woman lying in the middle of the street. This photograph of Hopper would become known as “Untitled (Hollywood’s Biggest Toy Shop With Fallen Wife)”. Hopper then snapped a few photos of the gregarious, baby-faced Geldzahler riding a shotgun, the wind stroking his hair as he laughed. This laugh was perhaps nervous, since the driver of the Corvair was having fun with a camera when he should have been watching the road.

“Double Standard” is traditionally dated 1961. Hopper – who hasn’t always done the best job of labeling his film – threw that year away when asked about the image. The negatives indicate otherwise, revealing details of the Corvair’s interior that confirm it’s a 1964 model. The “Smart Women” billboard is from around 1963. Geldzahler himself remembered his visit to Los Angeles in 1963. The memory may have failed; it was not until September 1964 that vogue published his essay “Los Angeles: The Second City of Art”, which reported on the supposedly cultureless city of the West as a mecca for contemporary art. “The excitement,” he wrote, “is undeniably there.” (He cited Hopper and Hayward as important Angeleno collectors.) The Ferus Gallery used “Double Standard” to advertise an October 1964 exhibition of Ruscha’s work, including what might be considered his visual relative , “Standard Station, Amarillo, TX”. a huge painting of a brightly lit gas station, as unremarkable as it is beautiful, with dizzying diagonals reminiscent of the old cinematic trick of filming an oncoming locomotive from the ground. “It kind of expands before your eyes,” Ruscha said. Hayward and Hopper bought the painting, as Hopper recalled, for seven hundred and eighty dollars. They hung it in the lair of 1712.

“Double Standard” was taken between the fall of 1963 and the late summer of 1964. It may not be as celebratory as viewers assume. “This city is not very visual to me,” Hopper said. “I struggle with it in Los Angeles. I don’t find it particularly appealing. Yet he was fascinated by the city roads and their never-ending procession of billboards, the indigenous folk art of Los Angeles. “To deprive the city of them,” writes British architectural historian Reyner Banham, “would be like depriving San Gimignano of its towers or the City of London of its Wren spiers.” When Warhol first came to Los Angeles , in September 1963 (to open a Ferus show and be feted by Hopper and Hayward), he cruised around town along Sunset Boulevard, which was lined with Foster & Kleiser billboards. environment, Warhol said, “Oh, this is America!” Viewers of “Double Standard” tend to have the same sentiment.

These days, a Petco in Melrose and Doheny dominates the scene, although what appear to be some of the old utility poles Hopper photographed remain. The number of motorists who have passed through this intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard since the early sixties would be impossible to calculate. Hopper once referred to his photographs as “tablets of time.” “Double Standard” fits that bill – an overabundant LA tableau that existed for a flickering moment before the lights changed and motorists, including Hopper, drove on.

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