Hoppy shoots from the hip

Phil Johnson on a photo-retrospective that captures the moods of the fast-changing Sixties
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The Independent Online

In the 1960s, John "Hoppy" Hopkins was a leading light of the underground scene in London . He helped to start the Notting Hill carnival, the legendary UFO nightclub (where a young Pink Floyd were the resident band), International Times newspaper and England's first "free" school.

In the 1960s, John "Hoppy" Hopkins was a leading light of the underground scene in London . He helped to start the Notting Hill carnival, the legendary UFO nightclub (where a young Pink Floyd were the resident band), International Times newspaper and England's first "free" school.

During this feverishly accelerated period of change in British life Hopkins was also a professional photographer, working for a range of newspapers and magazines from Peace News and Sanity to the Sunday Times, Melody Maker and Queen.

A selection from his remarkable archive of pictures gets its first London showing in a one-man exhibition called "From the Hip: The 1960s" which opens at the Photographers' Gallery this week.

The photographs are noteworthy not only for Hopkins' visual equivalent of an ear to the ground for significant social and political events, but also for their striking formal elegance.

The London underground's affilations with American bohemia are recalled in a number of prints featuring the poet Allen Ginsberg (a special interest of Hopkins', who has just turned his Ginsberg portfolio into a deluxe item for sale to the collectors' market, with an accompanying essay by Barry Miles, Sir Paul McCartney's biographer).

Also in the exhibition are pictures documenting the vanished demi-monde of Soho and Notting Hill, then a pre-gentrification world of tattoo parlours, brothels and bedsits.

Hopkins' career as a photographer and cultural activist in the 1960s seems all the more remarkable once you know where it all began. After graduating in natural sciences and physics from Cambridge University, he then went to work as a reactor physicist for the Atomic Energy Authority in order to avoid compulsory National Service. Following a holiday trip to the Soviet Union in a converted hearse, which ended in expulsion, Hopkins was interrogated by the British authorities, and subsequently resigned his post.

His godfather had given him a 35mm camera as a present, and after a picture of sculpture he sent to the Guardian was accepted for publication, he decided to move to London and make his way as a professional photographer, taking an apprenticeship with a studio in Pimlico just down the road from that of Anthony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon). "He [Armstrong-Jones] was a formative influence on many young photographers of the time because he re-defined in English terms what could be done with a 35mm camera in photo-journalism; he was f---inggood", Hopkins says.

After becoming a freelance himself, working reguarly for both the Sunday Times and the Observer, Hopkins entered what became the most lucrative phase of his career. The pop work for Melody Maker came about, he says, because of a Beatles tour.

"They were playing on big stages and the staff photographer could never manage to get all four of them into the same shot. After a couple of weeks they phoned me up and said, 'Please take a photo of the Beatles close-up in one shot. They'll be at this studio tomorrow morning at 11am.'

"After that, Melody Maker kept sending me to do rock 'n' roll stuff. As jazz was my passion, I did a lot of that for them too, which was fun because I never had to pay to get into Ronnie Scott's."

Hopkins's career as a photographer then began to take second place to his evolving interest in the world he was photographing.

"The counter-culture was a kind of sub-strand that me and my friends were all living in anyway. What happened with photography was that as I got more involved with actually being part of the sub-culture, I had less time to photograph.

"But really, my work with the Sunday Times became more cut and dried and I realised that I had no choice in setting the agenda. Instead, I was into promoting and having a good time; running underground newspapers, psychedelic nightclubs, organising happenings and generally creating cultural mayhem."

Just in case anyone trots out the old cliché that if you really remember the 1960s, you can't have been there, Hoppy Hopkins definitely was: he has the photographs to prove it.

* 'From The Hip: the 1960s': Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (020 7836 9704), Thursday to 19 November . A selection of John Hopkins's videotapes will also be shown at the Lux Cinema, N1 (020 7684 0201), on 18 October. The limited edition portfolio 'Ginsberg in London' is available from Andrew Sclanders (020 7278 5034)

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