John 'Hoppy' Hopkins at Idea Generation
Wednesday 17 Jun 2009
The Idea Generation gallery in London showcases photography from the
psychedelic era this week as it holds a retrospective of acclaimed
photographer John 'Hoppy' Hopkins.
The exhibition, titled Against Tyranny: Photographs and Psychedelic
Art from 60s Counter Culture, features Hopkins' striking
black-and-white images of leading 1960s figures from Martin Luther
King to John Lennon, and also his photos of the tumultuous period --
everything from peace marchers to mod culture.
Hopkins did more for the era than simply chart it from behind a lens,
though: he was a pivotal part of the counter-cultural movement,
bringing Allen Ginsberg to the UK for the first time and helping to
kickstart psychedelia by co-founding the UFO Club.
For more information on Hopkins see this article in The Times. [sese below]
The exhibition runs from June 19 to July 19. For more information
visit the Idea Generation website.
John Hopkins: John, Yoko, Mick . . . and me
John 'Hoppy' Hopkins lived the spirit of the Sixties, photographing
the leading musicians and politicians of his day
June 3, 2009
A few days before I am due to meet John Hopkins, a well-meaning
intermediary suggests that it might be useful for "Hoppy" to have, in
advance, a list of the sort of things I'd like to know about. There
is no sinister motive behind this no questions to be vetted.
Instead, there's the suggestion that lives might be made easier if
the 71-year-old were allowed a bit of time for his thoughts to be
ordered and for his memory to dredge up the appropriate names and
faces, people, places.
The problem with this list, though, is that there is almost too much
to ask. You just want to write "Everything". Because until recently I
had only the woolliest appreciation of who Hopkins is and what he has
done. In 1961 he morphed from nuclear physicist to roving
photojournalist, then going on to become a kingpin of the London
underground movement. He brought Allen Ginsberg to the Albert Hall
and established the countercultural bible the International Times
before helping to launch psychedelia with the hugely influential UFO
club. When, in 1967, Hopkins landed in Wormwood Scrubs, sentenced for
marijuana possession by a judge who called him "a pest to society"
under the punitive drug laws that almost resulted in the jailing of
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Paul McCartney paid for a page
advertisement in The Times as part of the subsequent campaign to
liberalise the drug laws. If you have an interest in Sixties
counterculture there are worse people to talk to.
We meet because this month an exhibition opens in London displaying
the best of Hopkins's photography from 1961 to 1966. Here, you will
find Beat Poets, the Beatles and Stones, Malcolm X and Martin Luther
King, CND demonstrators and American jazz musicians, captured
alongside the eerie austerity of postwar London cityscapes and candid
depictions of the era's less celebrated cast: the sex fetishists, the
tattoo artists, the prostitutes, the drug addicts and the families
who, in the atomic age, still lived in 19th-century poverty.
"This guy," says Hopkins, pointing to a photograph of a cheery bloke
in a Notting Hill bedsit, "is this guy," he says, now pointing to a
picture of a man clad in shiny black rubber boots, cape and mask,
while fondling what look like a pair of pliers. "It was quite
interesting, because he had his own language. He talked to me about
what he did for clients. One of the things he'd do was give them
'easements', which meant orgasms," he smiles. "He seemed an ordinary
person, reasonably friendly. Not uptight at all."
Hopkins asks, again, if I'd like a cup of tea. Do I have a sweet
tooth, he wonders, gesturing toward some cake in the kitchen of his
Clerkenwell flat? His voice blends an academic's measured authority
and thoughtfulness with flecks of Mid-Atlantic, and though he does
occasionally lose his thread or pause for long moments this probably
has much to do with fielding the multi-faceted questions that his
life and work draw. In his living room is a blown-up photograph of
William Burroughs (his own shot), whose eyes follow you around the
room. A psychedelic cycling cap sits above Hopkin's now gnomish face
and, along with his chunky purple Nike trainers, he wears a
sweatshirt emblazoned with a photograph of the jazz trumpeter Lee
Morgan (also his own). It was freelancing for Melody Maker that made
him a chronicler of jazz and pop, just as commissions from The Sunday
Times did with party politics.
"I found musicians were quite accessible if you were polite," he
says. "If you treat people like stars, they'll behave like stars, but
if you treat them like ordinary people, they'll behave ordinarily.
But everyone was accessible then perhaps it's a reflection of the
era. I remember walking down a beach in Brighton with James
Callaghan, who was a minister at the time, and photographing him with
his wife and secretary, having a picnic. I remember taking some
photographs of Harold Wilson in a hotel room, and when I finished we
just shook hands and it was a 'see you round' sort of thing. Now, you
can't get near those [types of] people."
If, like Philip Larkin, you think the Sixties didn't really get going
until 1963, then much of Hopkins's photography captures a sort of
acceleration. Compare, for instance, his CND protestors filling
Trafalgar Square in 1964 all shirts and ties, side partings and
duffel coats with the photographs of Hopkins and friends
congregating in the same place for the same cause two years later. He
has patterns painted on his face and a faraway stare and blissed-out
smile. With him is the Warhol actress Kate Heliczer.
"Kate was married to the American poet Piero Heliczer. She was my
girlfriend at the time," he says, peering at the photo. At the same
time as she was married? "Well, technically, I think she was married
to the poet," he frowns. "Technically."
Hopkins was not born into a world that promised liaisons with
art-house actresses or Vogue models such as Gala Mitchell, who also
features in his work. He was born in Slough. He went to boarding
school, where he played trumpet in the army cadet band, and then on
to Cambridge where he graduated with a "not very good degree" in
physics and maths. A "not very good job" with the Atomic Energy
Authority meant he avoided National Service at the cost of having to
"lug uranium bars" around for three years.Then a friend from the
Cheltenham CND invited him on a trip to drive to Moscow in a
converted hearse to protest against nuclear weapons. "I said, yes,
and told the Atomic Energy Authority who said, well, we think you'd
better not," he explains. "So I said: 'F*** you, that's where I'm
going. I don't like my employers telling me where I can't go on
holiday.' And I went."
Eventually, Hopkins was thrown out of Russia for breaking the terms
of his visa by leaving his travelling party. On returning to London,
he remembers how he was "heavily grilled by MI something 5 or 6
which was quite unpleasant. Incidentally, I'd been teaching myself
photography. I'd sent some pictures to The Guardian, they sent me a
cheque, and on the strength of that I decided to move to London and
become a photographer."
It was the eventual betrayal, as Hopkins sees it, by Harold Wilson
elected in 1964 on an antinuclear platform only to "change his
position 180 degrees" that hastened the pace of underground
politics. In Hopkins's flat what began as small newsletters and
hodge-podge collections of poetry, photography and jazz reviews
became, by late 1966, the International Times (it). Attracting
contributors such as Germaine Greer and John Peel, it was soon an
established title in an underground press that included Oz, Ink and
"There was a rivalry between all of us, but it was only superficial
because we were all striving in the same direction," he explains,
insisting that by writing in depth about sex or drugs, these titles
were merely sharing information that hundreds of thousands of people
wanted to know about. "I thought that communications systems should
be common carriers, like the internet is now, without restriction on content.
"I remember sending a letter out to about 100 people I thought were
prime movers in one way or another," he says, on his theme of putting
"communications theory" to work. "I think the year must have been
1967 or 1968. It was meant to be an act of inclusion, a way of
saying, 'Hi there, we're all really in the same boat; how are you?
This is my contact information, this is what I can do'." The letter,
which he digs out, is signed by Hopkins as well as the founder of Oz,
Richard Neville, and the co-founder of Village Voice, John Wilcock.
The list of recipients ranges from Yoko Ono to Richard Branson. It's
the 1960s countercultural equivalent of an exclusive Facebook group.
Continued involvement with it and related activities, such as the
London Free School (a communally run centre offering arts workshops
and an underground hangout), meant that Hopkins's photography fell by
the wayside after 1966. It also accounted, he believes, for his
stretch in prison: the Labour politician Wayland Young, Baron Kennet,
felt that his daughter, Emily (Young, of Pink Floyd's See Emily Play
and now a sculptor), was being led astray by the activities of the
Free School. Hopkins claims that "he basically arranged to get me
busted. The police came to my place and I was charged [with possession]".
Six months inside followed. "I'd rather have not been in jail while
the Summer of Love was happening," he grins. On his release he
married one of the girls who appeared onstage with Frank Zappa as
"Suzy Creamcheese" (for his song Son of Suzy Creamcheese), but she
"took off shortly afterwards". He never remarried.
By the start of the 1970s Hopkins had discovered nascent video
technology, becoming head of the video department in the Institute
for Research in Art and Technology in London. He believed that it was
the most fluid medium for unobstructed, uncensored communications,
and helped to found the open-to-all post-production company Fantasy
Factory. This in turn led to work with the Centre of Advanced TV
Studies and commissions from the Arts Council, Unesco and even the
Home Office (there is something nicely subversive about this, given
that Hopkins was living in a Camden squat at the time).
Evening classes in botany and biochemistry led to a part-time job
with the University of Westminster as a "plant tissue culture
consultant", which he held until recently. He also returned to
photography, developing close-up camera techniques that allowed him
to trace changes in plant tissue growth. Now, he spends much of his
time looking for the financial means to restore and digitalise his
video archives, as well as managing his photographs from the Sixties
a period, he concedes, that feels increasingly distant.
What, when they go on display, would he hope a young viewer might see
in them? "I'd like to think that there's some sort of world view in
there which would be encouraging to them," he decides, after a think.
"Encourage them to throw off some of the bad things about a society
that's too rigid. If you look at the corruption with MPs we're trying
to deal with now, it's very serious. The place is in a terrible mess.
It's more urgent now than it was in the Sixties. It might sound a
long way to stretch my little exhibition with an attitude which says
'the state is out of date', but it's true."
It is, I suggest, a strange picture: the genteel keeper of tropical
greenhouses still being the radical firebrand, letting slip to his
biochemist colleagues snippets of his time in the underground,
replete with the Beatles and Stones, Warhol actresses and stints in prison.
"Well, you don't have to tell everyone your life story," he frowns,
then pauses, then smiles. "Although sometimes it can be quite fun if you do."
Hoppy Against Tyranny: Talking about a Revolutionary, Idea Generation
Gallery, London E2, June 19July 19