Curator Petra Giloy-Hirtz describes her excitement at finding boxfuls of Dennis Hopper’s photographs, not seen since 1970, documenting a period of great change in the US

Before Dennis Hopper died in May 2010,  he had been preparing a retrospective of  his photographs, paintings, sculptures  and mixed-media works with the American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel.  In July that year, I went to the preview at  the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and met Hopper’s daughter Marin. A year later, she invited me to look through her father’s photographs, some of which  are stored in warehouses and others in his beautiful studio at Venice Beach. There were hundreds – from black-and-white prints to Polaroids and digital shots. The second time I visited, Marin unearthed five boxes containing 429 vintage prints, which Hopper had exhibited at his first major show at the Fort Worth Museum in 1970. 

My original intention had been to curate a retrospective of Hopper’s photography covering everything from 1961 to the pictures he was taking before he died.  When the boxes were discovered, I revised my plan: I now had a treasure trove of lost black-and-white shots taken by Hopper between 1961 and 1967. He had personally selected more than 500 of them for the exhibition at Fort Worth: the show then moved to Washington and the photographs disappeared. They haven’t been seen by  the public since.

The photographs we have are small, black-and-white, mounted on cardboard  and are fixed directly on to the wall. No glass and no frames. Hopper wrote notes  on the back of many of them. I scrutinised  a few documentary shots we found from  the Fort Worth exhibition to see how he  had hung them and tried, as far as possible,  to reconstruct the original hanging. The way in which he grouped and hung them was idiosyncratic. 

The lost photographs cover a fascinating period of Dennis’s life and of American history. Apparently, James Dean had encouraged him to pick up a camera when they were working together on Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Hopper admired Dean immensely and was devastated when he died in a car crash in 1955. So, when his first wife, Brooke Hayward, brought him  a Nikon F camera with a 28mm lens, Hopper slung it around his neck – where  it remained almost constantly until 1967 when he stopped taking photographs and started working on Easy Rider.

Looking at the lost photographs, you  can see how Hopper ended up co-writing, directing and starring in Easy Rider. He had been taking pictures of bikers and hippies, of drug-taking and counterculture. There  is an enormous similarity between his photography and the moving images –  for example, a series of eight photographs telling the story of a homeless guy who  is looking for something on the street.  It almost resembles a little film in that it  has a definite narrative. 

The range of Hopper’s photographs is breathtaking. There are images of celebrities such as Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as members of his own family. Others capture counterculture gatherings and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery at the height of the African-American Civil Rights Movement – an experience that totally overwhelmed Hopper. 

It’s very easy to think of him as just a Hollywood bad boy, but in the Sixties,  he regarded himself as a political artist  and wanted to be a witness of his time,  to contribute to history by chronicling  what he saw going on around him. At this stage, he thought these photographs were going to be his only legacy. Although Hopper was self-taught, he took photography very seriously and his compositions stand comparison with the work of other great photographers of the time. 

The exhibition at the Royal Academy  will show Easy Rider and The Last Movie, which Hopper also wrote, directed and starred in. If you watch Easy Rider and hear Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ after looking at these lost photographs, you’ll get goose pimples. It’s clear how they led Hopper to make a movie that essentially changed Hollywood. His eye, his visual talent and political awareness all manifest themselves in the film – while the photographs act almost as its storyboard.  

Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 from 26 June to 19 October;