New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 15 April 3 to 9, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Ravaged by Time
Allen Ginsberg
Beat Memories: The Photographs of
Allen Ginsberg
Ed Barnas
Myself seen by William Burroughs on roof of apartment house East Seventh Street where I had a flat..., 1953 by Allen Ginsberg. Source:
Allen Ginsberg, "Myself seen by William Burroughs on roof of apartment house East Seventh Street where I had a flat..., 1953"

Allen Ginsberg is remembered more as the leading Beat poet rather than as a photographer. Yet, the mind and eye that recorded the world in vivid verbal imagery were also quite capable of capturing an interesting visual image.

The close to one hundred silver prints on display at the Grey Art Gallery fall into three distinct categories: the vintage “drugstore” prints from the 50’s and early 60’s, the modern prints of these vintage negatives, and later images taken from the mid-80’s onward. In these last two categories Ginsberg wrote captions below the image that would vary over time.

The vintage prints are matted to display their drugstore origins – white borders or crinkle cut edges with square holes along the side for a plastic comb binding. These are the snapshots of his “chosen” family: Burroughs, Kerouac, Cassady, Orlovsky, et al. Young, and early in their careers, they enjoyed life. The camera is passed around and some of the images are credited to others in the group who travels from New York to San Francisco, Paris, Tangier, and the East. While the primary interest for many viewers are the people pictured, the images exhibit a growing visual sophistication. Earlier ones show the focus-spot centering of the subject but include enough information to maintain visual interest in the surround. As time goes by the framing appears more conscious. There is a pair of seaside photos from Tangier (1957): one shows mid-distance view of Gregory Corso and Paul Bowles walking on the beach approaching a prone William Burroughs; the second is a closer view, three-quarter length, of Burroughs, still prone.

Forgotten for almost twenty years, Ginsberg rediscovered these snaps in the early 80’s, reawakening his interest in photography. Influenced by his friends Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott, he ordered enlargements of the old negatives and wrote detailed captions directly on the print: who and where and what they were writing/doing at the time (rather more factual than the allegorical captions Duane Michaels was writing on prints at the same time).

Written well after the fact, some of these captions are colored by both time and retrospection (e.g., the photo of a bloated Kerouac in 1964, captioned as “looking like his late father”). Included are images of the group in front of City Lights before the publication of Howl, of Neal Cassidy with his girlfriend beneath a movie marquee for Brando in The Wild One, of Burroughs and the Sphinx, of Kerouac with his pocket brake-man manual (this last conveniently displayed above a vintage 5x7 print, highlighting the darker tone of the later prints). These are of interest to Beat devotees, but there are also stunning visual pieces from this period: Gregory Corso by an attic window in Paris (1957), Robert LeVigne (1955), Gary Snyder in Kyoto.

W.S.Burroughs at rest in the side-yard of his house by Allen Ginsberg. Source:
Allen Ginsberg, "W.S.Burroughs at rest in the side-yard of his house" 1991

Yet Ginsberg did not just mine the past. Starting in the 80’s he created new images. He continued to document his circle of friends, many now ravaged by time (Harry Smith with head bowed, a profile of Burroughs at rest in 1993 reminiscent of funerary bust, Peter Orlovsky with his family). I found the use of light and space in the portrait of Francesco Clemente (dwarfed behind a large manuscript volume,) particularly striking. The self-portraits continue, clothed and nude, oftentimes with the camera clearly visible, as if to consciously identify as a photographer opposed to the earlier ones with a self-timer. And while the vast majority of images in this show are portraits, this late set includes a quartet of views from his back window, capturing a view he has seen for decades and calling to mind Steichen’s Shadblow Tree series.

Yes, this is a “celebrity photographer” show. Yes, many will come on a pilgrimage to see Ginsberg and his fellow Beats in their youth and glory and the memorabilia in the vitrines. But it is more than that. Ginsberg had a “good eye” and many of these images can stand alone and be enjoyed without a deep knowledge who, what, where, and when.

Allen Ginsberg
Beat Memories: The Photographs of
Allen Ginsberg

Grey Art Gallery
100 Washington Square East
Lower Manhattan - West         Map

212 998 6780

Tuesday, January 15 to
Saturday, April 6, 2013
Hours: Tues/Thurs/Fri, 11-6; Wed, 11-8; Sat, 11-5

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