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Guest Post: The Story Behind Dennis Hopper's Greatest Photograph

By Tom Folsom   Thursday April 4, 2013

Dennis Hopper was many things in his remarkable life--edgy actor, groundbreaking film director, and precocious art collector, among them. He was, of course, also a profound photographer who documented Hollywood and the calamitous culture of the 1960s with an eye for startling composition and layered meaning. Hopper took up photography after his wife, actress and writer Brooke Hayward, gave him a $300 Nikon in 1961. It was that same year that Hopper snapped what many now consider to be his seminal photograph: Titled “Double Standard,” it shows a gas station at an intersection in Los Angeles where the American Dream seemed to have come to the end of the road. Tom Folsom, author of the new biography Hopper: A Journey Into the American Dream,notes that Hopper was obsessed with American iconography, and in a guest post for Pro Photo Daily he describes how that fascination allowed Hopper to see the art that was all around him, waiting to be captured on black-and-white film.

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Dennis Hopper, “Double Standard,” and The End of the American Dream

By Tom Folsom

Encompassing his obsession with American iconography, billboards, and the beckoning illusion of the open road, “Double Standard” is widely considered to be Dennis Hopper’s seminal photograph. When he snapped the image, in 1961, he’d only recently taken up photography with a 35mm Nikon that had been a twenty-fifth birthday present from his wife, Brooke Hayward, the actress and beloved daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan. (Neither of her parents, Hollywood royalty, were happy about their daughter marrying the kid from Dodge City, Kansas, a temperamental actor who’d just gotten canned from Warner Bros.)

Cruising along Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and ogling the huge, glossy billboards, freshly hand-painted by craftsmen who could make cans of Spam look as enticing as blonde movie stars, Hopper considered these 14­-by-48­-foot canvases to be works in a roadside gallery of his peculiar “found art.” Click. Click. Click.

Hopper knew about such things. He hung out with the right crowd, and was close friends with Walter Hopps, a shadowy art savant and the head of the Pasadena Art Museum, where he curated the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp. It’s likely that Hopps introduced Hopper to Duchamp’s concept of “readymades”—that art could come into being instantaneously, just by chance looking at an object in the right way, be it a urinal, a bicycle wheel, a scene, or a sign.

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Spiffed up in a black tie and tuxedo for Duchamp’s opening gala in 1963, Hopper, jacked up on P.T. Barnum opportunism, noticed and then proceeded to rip off (or unscrew) a sign for Hotel Green, the venue that was hosting the dinner of this fabulous affair. He brought it before the godfather of Pop art and asked Duchamp to sign. As swiftly produced as an Instagram, it was an ingenious collaboration: a Duchamp/Hopper readymade.

So, one day Hopper was driving down the last, lonely stretch of Route 66 with another pal, Henry Geldzahler, who had recently been named the curator for American art at the Metropolitan Museum. Right there in front of his nose, at the corner of Melrose and Doheny (or Santa Monica Blvd., Hopper later couldn’t remember which), he “found” art.

The photograph that he snapped, which would become known as “Double Standard,” can be seen as another shot in the long, rambling film montage of his life. Friends of Hopper tell me that at the time he took the picture—seven years before he directed and starred in Easy Rider—he knew, was convinced, that no studio would front the money for a “Dennis Hopper film.” But he practiced for his big moment, taking his Nikon shots full frame—no cropping. That was essential, his best friend, actor Dean Stockwell, emphasized. Why? “Because you don’t crop in the movies.”

There on the lamppost in the intriguing black-and-white photo is a Route 66 sign indicating the end of the road for the American dream. Hopper’s favorite Henry Fonda film was the Okie epic The Grapes of Wrath, and with his own dusty, all-American upbringing on an egg farm during the tail end of the Dust Bowl in Kansas, like a little-boy version of The Wizard of Oz, Hopper knew something about the dream of California.

Click.

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Tom Folsom’s book Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream (HarperCollins/It Books) is out in stores March 5. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and at his website.

 

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