4.17 / Review

Beat Memories: The Photos of Allen Ginsberg

By Mark Van Proyen June 13, 2013

Allen Ginsberg—a poet, a key figure in the West Coast beatnik movement that percolated around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore in 1960s San Francisco, and a generation’s voice of dissent—led a multifaceted career. But he was consistent in one important way: he was always an outspoken avatar of compassion in a world that was, and still is, often frighteningly cruel. Along the way, he took some photographs, over eighty of which are featured in Beat Memories: The Photos of Allen Ginsberg, a traveling exhibition that was originally organized by Sarah Greenough at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The photographs, most of which remained as negatives until they were printed between 1987 and Ginsberg’s passing in 1997, are predominantly portraits of friends and associates, the earliest of which date to 1953, when Ginsberg was living in a New York apartment that he shared with William S. Burroughs. Jack Kerouac was also hanging around then, and he and Burroughs are the enigmatic figures inhabiting many of Ginsberg’s more interesting pictures from that year, as well as later ones taken upon Ginsberg’s arrival in San Francisco in 1954. Ginsberg seemed particularly fascinated by Kerouac’s chiseled face and rugged good looks—as in Untitled Portrait (1953)—a concern that seems to have overridden any urge to organize the other visual elements contained within the image. By the time Kerouac was in his mid-forties, as in the chilling Jack Kerouac, the last time he visited my apartment… (1964), the chiseled good looks were long gone.

The majority of the works on view feature short explanatory writings that Ginsberg added after taking the photographs. These are rendered in an almost illegible handwritten script and seem to function as ways of further connecting the images to the histories from which they emerged. But sometimes the remarks are more revealing, as in Bill must have said something funny from the floor… (1953), an upward view of the young Ginsberg flashing a broad, congenial smile.

Allen Ginsberg. Myself seen by William Burroughs…, 1953; gelatin silver print; 11 1/4 x 17 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.
Allen Ginsberg. Neal Cassady and his love of that year…, 1955; gelatin silver print; 9 13/16 x 14 15/16 in. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

In the various images of Neal Cassady—the muse for Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity character in On The Road (1957)— Cassady appears with an array of stunningly beautiful women. One of these pictures, taken in San Francisco in 1955, is titled Neal Cassady with his love of that year…. In the image, the two figures smile intimately while half-embracing under a movie marquee. The image is not particularly well composed and fails to do much with lighting and mid-tones, but since Cassady was something of a latter-day Lord Byron and went on to play a central role in the odyssey of Ken Kesey’s group of Merry Pranksters, the photo’s shortcomings can be forgiven because the image conveys the deepest of hipster legends.

Many of Ginsberg’s photographs depict himself, and one of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition is the way in which it documents the physical and psychological changes that marked the poet’s life. But here it should be noted that not all of the images are self-portraits: some were taken by others using Ginsberg’s camera, a point that the exhibition labels could have clarified. In general, one can divide these photos into three categories: early images of Ginsberg being coy and genial (perhaps for future book-jacket photos), the middle period of Ginsberg in auto-paparazzo mode, and later images of the aging Ginsberg coming to terms with his mortality. The latter group is the most compelling, revealing the writer without the masks that defined his younger identity.

Clearly, Ginsberg’s photos lack the artistry of the Garry Winogrand works recently on view at the nearby San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (an exhibition that was also co-curated by Greenough). But, like all family photos, the Ginsberg images are about memorializing the familiar whereas Winogrand took the all-too-familiar and made it transcendent. Certainly, Winogrand has a more artistic sleight of hand, not to mention a greater mastery of the photographic medium, which is often shown by contorted faces peering from vertiginous compositions. But in the end, Ginsberg’s photographs get by, in large part because of the help he received from a group of very impressive friends.

In the various images of Neal Cassady—the muse for Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity character in On The Road (1957)— Cassady appears with an array of stunningly beautiful women. One of these pictures, taken in San Francisco in 1955, is titled Neal Cassady with his love of that year…. In the image, the two figures smile intimately while half-embracing under a movie marquee. The image is not particularly well composed and fails to do much with lighting and mid-tones, but since Cassady was something of a latter-day Lord Byron and went on to play a central role in the odyssey of Ken Kesey’s group of Merry Pranksters, the photo’s shortcomings can be forgiven because the image conveys the deepest of hipster legends.

Many of Ginsberg’s photographs depict himself, and one of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition is the way in which it documents the physical and psychological changes that marked the poet’s life. But here it should be noted that not all of the images are self-portraits: some were taken by others using Ginsberg’s camera, a point that the exhibition labels could have clarified. In general, one can divide these photos into three categories: early images of Ginsberg being coy and genial (perhaps for future book-jacket photos), the middle period of Ginsberg in auto-paparazzo mode, and later images of the aging Ginsberg coming to terms with his mortality. The latter group is the most compelling, revealing the writer without the masks that defined his younger identity.

Clearly, Ginsberg’s photos lack the artistry of the Garry Winogrand works recently on view at the nearby San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (an exhibition that was also co-curated by Greenough). But, like all family photos, the Ginsberg images are about memorializing the familiar whereas Winogrand took the all-too-familiar and made it transcendent. Certainly, Winogrand has a more artistic sleight of hand, not to mention a greater mastery of the photographic medium, which is often shown by contorted faces peering from vertiginous compositions. But in the end, Ginsberg’s photographs get by, in large part because of the help he received from a group of very impressive friends.

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg is on view at Contemporary Jewish Museum, in

San Francisco

, through September 9, 2013.

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