The Dennis Hopper Photograph That Caught Los Angeles

The image is pure cacophony, a distillation of Los Angeles as riotous streetscape, the motorized city as information overload. At a multi-way intersection, traffic lights and directional signage jostle for attention. A billboard declares that “Smart women cook with Gas in Balanced Power Homes.” A pedestrian stands at a crosswalk while a ’61 Chevy Impala faces across an expanse of blacktop, seeming to stare directly into the camera lens. Two avenues, lined with utility poles, fork and recede toward a mountainous horizon. Overhead power lines—twenty of them at least—slice the image along laserlike diagonals; they look like the perspective lines that an artist draws and then erases out of a picture. Any illusion of depth they create is countered by how the entire overstuffed panorama is framed in windshield glass, which flattens the picture and indicates that it was shot from the driver’s seat of a car. A rearview mirror reveals idling traffic behind: we’re at a stop. Dead ahead, a pair of “Standard” signs—of the type that once marked the ubiquitous service stations of Los Angeles—spreads open like albatross wings. (The advertised price of gas is 30.9¢ a gallon.) If anything can be said to anchor this compositional mess, a boisterous vision that seems hellbent on atomizing our gaze, it’s those two signs which give the photograph its punning title: “Double Standard.”

Dennis Hopper took this dizzying photograph with a thirty-five-millimeter Nikon that his wife, Brooke Hayward, had given him as a present for his twenty-fifth birthday, not long after the two of them met on a Broadway flop, “Mandingo,” in the spring of 1961. Their electric courtship prompted a hasty marriage that August. As a couple, they were, as Hayward put it, “oil and water”: he, a self-destructive Hollywood maverick, 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 fledgling acting career was on the rise.

But acting was not to be their primary pursuit. Hopper and Hayward were bound by a mutual love of all things visual—painting, sculpture, photography—and went on to build an enviable art collection, one of the best of the era, offering important early patronage to the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Ed Ruscha. (The works that the couple bought on a shoestring budget, often at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery, could now be worth hundreds of millions.) Their house at 1712 North Crescent Heights Boulevard, in the Hollywood Hills, which they crammed with vanguard art and campy treasures, was known as the Prado of Pop, a place Warhol compared to an amusement park. It was itself a kind of installation piece, a collaborative life-as-art experiment that happened to be a family home.

“Double Standard” is probably the best known of the eighteen thousand images that Hopper created with his Nikon from 1961 to around the time he began shooting “Easy Rider,” in early 1968, which happens to be when his and Hayward’s combustible marriage finally blew up. The photograph resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and, as visual distillations of L.A. go, it’s one of the greats. Hopper, by the way, wasn’t just a weekend shutterbug; his photography was featured in Vogue and Artforum, in gallery announcements, and on album covers. He also shot for his own pleasure. Hayward would often go through her husband’s contact sheets, helping him select the best shots. In my research, I, too, found myself staring at his contact sheets and negative strips, including the one containing “Double Standard,” which I was able to peruse at the Hopper Art Trust, the storehouse of Hopper’s photography. This particular image was shot on a day in the early sixties, after Hopper had set out from 1712 in his Corvair convertible. He drove west to meet up with two visitors from New York: Richard Bellamy, the founder of the influential Green Gallery; and Henry Geldzahler, the all-purpose art-world gadfly and a fledgling curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hopper shot nine frames of the East Coast art mavens as they lounged around a patio in sunglasses, and then he and Geldzahler jumped 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 the Hopper tour of L.A. (He photographed subjects as varied as Ike and Tina Turner and the artist James Rosenquist there.) The Antwerp-born, voraciously social Geldzahler was among the few curators willing to stick his neck out for Pop art, as Hopper and Hayward had been doing with their collecting. The connection between billboards and Pop was self-evident. As Hopper and Geldzahler were motoring east on Santa Monica Boulevard, the historic Route 66, they caught a light at the intersection with Melrose Avenue and North Doheny Drive in West Hollywood. Hopper raised the Nikon and got the picture—a one-off—just as the light turned green. When I spoke with Gerard Malanga, the poet and photographer who, in the sixties, helped Warhol create his silk screens, he said that Hopper had a special knack for this kind of “grab shot”—a fired-off, well-framed image that freezes an unduplicatable moment in time.

Had Geldzahler suggested the shot? Had Hopper been gabbing about gas stations and billboards? According to Hopper, he was merely excited to see one of his favorite Foster & Kleiser billboards—“Smart women cook with Gas in Balanced Power Homes”—while driving to Foster & Kleiser. “I liked the billboard,” Hopper later said. “I liked the idea that the Route 66 sign was there, and it was just something I’d put off taking for a while. I drive so much in L.A., and I’m such a visual person, I just sort of collect things that I want to do, want to make.” Hopper mused about buying the “Smart women” billboard, thinking he might be able to get it for seven hundred dollars once it was taken down. At Foster & Kleiser that day, Geldzahler, by his own account, marvelled as “painters of mammoth billboards—the original photo-realists—were creating timeless California artifacts.”

Hopper took about a dozen pictures of Geldzahler at the billboard factory, and then, while driving west on Hollywood Boulevard near Musso & Frank Grill, he and Geldzahler encountered the weird spectacle of a woman lying in the middle of the street. This Hopper photograph would become known as “Untitled (Hollywood’s Largest Toy Shop with fallen woman).” Hopper then popped a few shots of the gregarious, baby-faced Geldzahler riding shotgun, wind riffling his hair, laughing. That laughter may have been nervous, since the driver of the Corvair was fooling around with a camera when he should have been watching the road.

“Double Standard” is traditionally dated to 1961. Hopper—who didn’t always do the best job of labelling his film—tossed out that year when asked about the picture. The negatives indicate otherwise, revealing details of the Corvair’s interior that confirm it to be a 1964 model. The “Smart women” billboard dates to around 1963. Geldzahler himself remembered his L.A. visit as 1963. The recollection may have been near miss; it wasn’t until September of 1964 that Vogue ran his essay “Los Angeles: The Second City of Art,” which reported on the allegedly cultureless city of the West as a contemporary-art mecca. “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, show of Ruscha’s work, including what could be considered its visual kin, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas,” an enormous painting of a brightly lit service station, as banal as it is beautiful, with soaring diagonals that suggest the old moviemaking trick of shooting an oncoming locomotive from ground level. “It sort of aggrandizes itself 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 den of 1712.

“Double Standard” was taken between the fall of 1963 and the late summer of 1964. It is also perhaps not as celebratory as viewers presume it to be. “This city is not very visual to me,” Hopper once said. “I have a hard time with that in Los Angeles. I don’t find it particularly attractive.” Yet he was fascinated by the city’s roadways and their relentless procession of billboards, L.A.’s indigenous folk art. “To deprive the city of them,” the British architectural historian Reyner Banham wrote, “would be like depriving San Gimignano of its towers or the City of London of its Wren steeples.” When Warhol came to L.A. for the first time, in September of 1963 (to open a Ferus show and be fêted by Hopper and Hayward), he cruised into town along Sunset Boulevard, which was lined with Foster & Kleiser billboards. Taking stock of his surroundings, Warhol said, “Oh, this is America!” Viewers of “Double Standard” tend to have that same feeling.

These days, a Petco at Melrose and Doheny dominates the scene, although what appear to be some of the old utility poles that Hopper photographed remain. The number of motorists who have made their way through that intersection at 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 L.A. tableau that existed for one flickering moment before the lights changed and the motorists, including Hopper, drove on.

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