"We have to seize the moment, think for ourselves, question authority and make a better world", John 'Hoppy' Hopkins (1937-2015)
The highly technological world we live in provides us daily with incredible visual stimuli, but it has definitely generated an average and at times rather mediocre and selfish society that seems more interested in sending out in the world piles of useless digital images of intimate and personal moments with absolutely no value or resonance on a cultural level (how many images of somebody you know attached to a drip in an A&E department in a hospital across the world have you seen materialising on your Facebook page accompanied by the pitiful words "in hospital"?). So it happens that, to find genuine alternative ideas, we have to go back to the early counterculture and anti-establishment movements and to figures such as photographer, writer and political activist John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, who sadly passed away at the end of January.
Born in Slough, Berkshire, Hopkins graduated in general science at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and at the end of the '50s he started working as a lab technician for the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell.
In 1960 he moved to London where he became a photographer. Five years later he organised with Barry Miles and poet Michael Horovitz a seminal Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall that passed to history as it featured among the others Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alexander Trocchi and Christopher Logue.
Shortly afterwards, he started a community-based adult education initiative called The London Free school, based in Notting Hill, and launched together with Miles the publication International Times (IT), Europe's first underground paper and a mix of radical and avant-garde writings.
When the magazine was launched at Camden's Roundhouse everybody who counted was there including The Beatles and Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (who at the time was shooting in London Blow up) with Monica Vitti. Hopkins went on to start the music venue UFO Club in a West End dance hall where he organised music, theatre and dance nights.
In the meantime, as the language and content of IT weren't favoured by the establishment, the offices of IT were often raided: following the police raid in March 1967, Hopkins put together a fund-raising event called the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace that was filmed by Peter Whitehead.
In the same year, after a small amount of hashish was found at his flat, Hopkins was sentenced to nine months in jail. When he got out he and Miles turned IT into a workers' co-operative, he launched information service Bit and, in 1969, he started with partner Sue Hall the Fantasy Factory, a non-profit video workshop and research centre.
Hopkins may have been talking about recreational drug-taking, writing about political protest, organising alternative music events or taking pictures of tattoo parlours, bikers and children in derelict areas of London, or shooting unique portraits of Allen Ginsberg celebrating his 39th birthday naked in a flat in Belgravia, of The Beatles and The Stones, Marianne Faithfull, John Lee Hooker, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman or Martin Luther King, but his work remained characterised by one main thing - honesty.
When his book From The Hip - Photographs by John "Hoppy" Hopkins 1960-66 was released in 2008 I did an interview with him for Dazed Digital. He seemed an encouraging and open person, keen to share his memories, thoughts and ideas, and, above all, he didn't regret his past. As a tribute to him, I'm republishing that interview at the end of this post.
Photo Memories from Hip Times: John "Hoppy" Hopkins - by Anna Battista
If you have read seminal volumes about the ‘60s underground scene such as Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, the name John "Hoppy" Hopkins will ring a bell with you. Hoppy worked as a photojournalist between 1960 and 1966, and later on co-founded the underground International Times (IT), set up the London Free School, promoted Pink Floyd and, together with music producer Joe Boyd, started London's first psychedelic club, UFO. Lee has recently supported the publication of the volume From The Hip - Photographs by John "Hoppy" Hopkins 1960-66 that will leave both genuine Hoppy fans and people who have never seen his work before crying for more. Featuring photographs of music Icons, images from the legendary 1965 poetry reading at the Royal Albert Hall and from anti-nuclear protests, the book is a testament to an era and to a man who never set out purposefully to document the ‘60s, but became an amazing chronicler of those times.
Can you tell us more about the genesis of From the Hip?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: I used this title for my first solo photo show in the year 2000 at the Photographer's Gallery in London. The exhibition sold a lot of prints so I decided to keep the name. When Lee Jeans approached me to make a collaboration between their garments and my images, they proposed creating a book and holding a number of short exhibition shows in European capitals - Berlin, Paris, Milan, Amsterdam, London and Copenhagen. It seemed a natural step to go on working under the same title. I didn't realise at the time that it was rather corny, and, if you look on Amazon, be careful not to buy books on hip replacement by mistake! In the European exhibitions, the photos were used both as art objects and as psychic wallpaper for denim jeans and other garments - a hilarious combination.
The book is published with the support of Lee jeans that also dedicated its Gold Label collection to you: how did this collaboration with Lee come up?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: It all started when an enterprising person from Lee's marketing department chanced to surf into my website and reckoned they liked the vibe, which fitted in some mysterious way with the aura of their Gold Label range garments newly launched. I was pleased because at last I found some jeans that really fitted me comfortably after 50 years of ball crushing super-stiff overpriced products from the market leader. And the Lee people were really easy to get along with.
Each photograph included in the volume has a story behind, but is there one picture that is particularly significant to you or that particularly moves you?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: If I had to choose, there are three that stand out: first, my beautiful girlfriend at the time, Gala. Next, there is one of Thelonius Monk's hands close-up at the piano, and the handwritten dedication, florid yet controlled and beautifully expressive, says as much about his inner aesthetic as does his enigmatic music. Then there is a signed portrait of Ornette Coleman the avant-garde musician who more or less invented free jazz – when he first came to Europe he stayed in my spare room and was a model houseguest and a soulful inspiration in more ways than just musical.
The book features some photographs from the 1965 poetry reading at the Royal Albert Hall: what was it like?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: Smoky, intense, full of people having fun. On another level it was a tipping point in today's jargon when thousands of us gazed into a tribal future with a new joy in our hearts – wow, were there that many of us?
International Times became a seminal underground publication: why do you think London hasn’t produced anything like it again?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: Each generation invents its own communications media to suit its needs, you can include the golden thread of music and mind-altering substances here. But sometimes it's better if history does not repeat itself. It was the analogue age then, and now the world is digital. But look out for a new website containing all the issues of International Times which will soon be available on the net, those guerrillas are still fighting against tyranny in their own way. With the World Wide Web, the politics of information is globalised.
Which was the most exciting aspect of running UFO?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: The uncertainty of not knowing what exactly was going to happen next whether music, visuals or pharmacologies, at its best the essence of the happening, or, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns, & in a safe environment.
You helped launching Pink Floyd, the Cream, the Soft Machine, the Social Deviants and the Sun Trolley: what's the nicest memory you have of those times?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: Lying on the grass with Suzy Creamcheese in a roseate dawn towards the end of the 14 hour Technicolor Dream in North London sometime in May 1967; the Floyd playing mixed with birdsong and unforeseen neurochemical pleasures – "heaven is in your mind" (Steve Winwood & Traffic).
Compared to those times, what is missing in London nowadays? Literary icons, legendary bands or underground politics?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: Civil rights and a freedom of action not now permitted by the totalitarian state. We have to seize the moment, think for ourselves, question authority and make a better world.
You were involved in the birth of the alternative scene in Notting Hill Gate and the book also features a section with pictures of the underbelly of Notting Hill with tattoo parlours, fetishists and prostitutes: where is this Notting Hill now?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: It is alive and well and gone upmarket. Low-life lives on. In the words of Heathcote Williams, "We are all kings and queens".
The book contains short essays by Joe Boyd, Barrie Miles, Val Wilmer and Addie Vassie: is there a friend/writer you would have liked to contribute to the book but wasn't available?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: Allen Ginsberg the American poet, and Brian Lewis, one of the founders of the Open University, a hip cybernetics wizard. Unfortunately, they both died some time ago.
Are you working on any special projects at the moment?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: Reviving some videotapes made in the early days of squatting in the 1970s.
Where can we buy prints of your photographs?
John "Hoppy" Hopkins: Prints are sold by the Photographer's Gallery, London and I also have a few, mainly of musical content, for private sale along with signed copies of the must-have From the Hip book, why not drop me a line.
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