Poet With a Kodak and a Restless Eye

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By HOLLAND COTTER

Published: September 12, 2010

WASHINGTON — The poet Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1997, adored life, feared death and craved fame. These obsessions seemed to have kept him, despite his practice of Buddhist meditation, from sitting still for long. He was constantly writing, teaching, traveling, networking, chasing lovers, sampling drugs, pushing political causes and promoting the work of writer friends.

© The Allen Ginsberg LLC


“Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg”: Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson in San Francisco, in the show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. More Photos »

In the early 1950s he began to photograph these friends in casual snapshots, meant to be little more than souvenirs of a shared time and ethos. Years later his picture taking — often of the same friends, now battered by life or approaching death — became more formal and artful, as if he were trying to freeze his subjects’ faces and energies, and to show off his photographic skills, for the history books.

Nearly 80 pictures, early and late, many with handwritten inscriptions, are on view through Thursday in “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” at theNational Gallery of Art here. Some are familiar; others rarely seen. As arranged by Sarah Greenough, the senior curator in the museum’s department of photographs, they form a continuous narrative. In the space of two small galleries we watch legends take shape, beauties fade, an American era come and go.

Ginsberg began his photographic chronicle of what would become the Beat generation in earnest in 1953, when he was in his late 20s and living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He had known the group’s crucial personalities — William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac and their communal muse Neal Cassady — since his student days at Columbia. He regarded them collectively, himself very much included, as a new literary vanguard. The work they were doing in the early ’50s seemed to confirm his faith. And his early pictures, taken with a secondhand Kodak, project a buoyant confidence.

We see figures who would soon enough become cultural monuments still vital and mercurial. In one much-published picture Kerouac, smoking and brooding, is already a romantic hero, but in another he’s a mugging cut-up on an East Village street “making a Dostoyevsky mad-face,” to quote Ginsberg’s caption.

And we also see a surprisingly seductive version of Burroughs. The world would come to know him as a dour presence in business suits and Burberry raincoats, but Ginsberg photographed him lying in bed like a half-nude odalisque eyeing the camera. When the picture was taken, the two men were briefly living together as lovers, with Burroughs deeply smitten, and Ginsberg primarily focused on editing Burroughs’s new novel, “Queer.”

By December of 1953 there were major shifts. Burroughs left for Morocco. Ginsberg hit the road for adventures in Mexico and Cuba, eventually landing in San Francisco. There in 1954 he met the teenage Peter Orlovsky, who would become his life partner. The relationship proved extremely complicated, but Ginsberg’s initial photos of his new mate have a distinct glow of tenderness that extends to pictures of other San Francisco friends. It’s as if the Summer of Love had arrived a generation early.

When Ginsberg first read his lacerating anti-establishment poem “Howl,” to a San Francisco audience in 1955, he found himself instantly famous. After “Howl” appeared in book form, he was notorious. United States Customs officials seized a second printing of the book and charged its publisher, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with selling obscene literature. Ferlinghetti was acquitted, but the 1957 trial put the Beat phenomenon squarely on the countercultural map. (A film titled “Howl,” which both documents and dramatizes the censorship incident, opens in New York this month with the promotional slogan: “The obscenity trial that started a revolution; the poem that rocked a generation.”)

Ginsberg was out of the country during the flap, wandering here and there, photographing wherever he went. We see his portraits of Burroughs and Paul Bowles in Tangier, then of Corso in Paris. By 1962 Ginsberg and Orlovsky were in India, taking drugs, chatting up holy men. With his full beard and long hair, Ginsberg looked like a proto-hippie at this point, but he was also still an avid sightseer, a kind of cultural tourist, snapping shots of erotic sculptures on Hindu temples.

After the mid-’60s the production of photographs drops off for almost two decades. There are some fine pictures still: one of Orlovsky doing a nude handstand on an old farm he and Ginsberg had bought in Cherry Valley, N.Y., and a final portrait of Kerouac in his early 40s, bloated, alcohol soaked, almost unrecognizable. But at some point Ginsberg lost a couple of cameras and was too busy to replace them. He let photography go.

Two decades later, though, he picked it up again in a serious way. In 1983 he came across pictures from the ’50s he had long forgotten about, many in the form of undeveloped negatives or cheap drugstore prints. He realized he was holding history in his hands. And, more aware than ever of the passing of time and of the increasing stature the Beat movement had earned, he wanted to preserve that past, and to extend it through photography.

So he bought a new camera. He consulted experts — Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank — about picture taking and printing. He reprinted old images in larger formats and with lots of blank marginal space for written annotation. (The captions on all his photos, however early, date from the 1980s onward.) Soon he was exhibiting and, not a minor consideration for a person who supported many old friends, selling work. Photography became a full-fledged second career.

Roughly half of the pictures in Washington date from the 1980s and 1990s. Most are conventional solo portraits, interesting because the sitters — a glum white-haired Corso, a tousled, tired Yevgeny Yevtushenko — are of interest, but also because of Ginsberg’s fine, avid eye, which was present from the start. Only Orlovsky is seen in a group shot. In a wrenching 1987 picture, he sits protectively with his mother and a haunted-looking brother and sister, all of whom suffered from mental illness.

Ginsberg was always eager to photograph pop stars, and there’s a portrait here of Bob Dylan, who was also a friend and collaborator. But the celebrity Ginsberg cared about most in the end was himself, and we get a couple of late-career images of him in this show. In one, a self-portrait from 1991, we see him, grizzled, paunchy and nude, reflected in a motel-room mirror. In a second, from 1996, taken — by Ginsberg himself? by someone else? — on his 70th birthday, he stands in front of his Lower East Side kitchen window, nattily dressed, self-possessed, fresh from a star turn at an exhibition devoted to Beat culture.

My favorites among the later photographs, though, are three of a different kitchen window in an earlier apartment, this time with no one in sight and Ginsberg present only behind the camera. He shot the pictures in different years in the 1980s, but apart from changes of season the view is the same: the window with a cluttered table in front of it, and outside a tenement backyard with scrappy trees, facing walls and patches of sky above.

Basically these are still lifes; undramatic, domestic, emblems of circling time. Or maybe you could think of them as images of everyday altars. In an inscription across the bottom of one he wrote, “I sat for decades at morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window” and “one day recognized my own world, the familiar background, the giant wet brick-walled Atlantis garden.” It’s a different world from the one we see in the rest of the show, plain, calm and unstriving. In art, Ginsberg sat still for a while.

“Beat Memories” continues through Thursday at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington; (202) 737-4215, nga.gov.

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