Allen Ginsberg’s Beat Family Album

The famous beat poet’s photographs reveal an American counterculture at work and play

Allen Ginsberg, facing the camera, believed that both poetry and photography could reveal "the luminousness of the ordinary event." (The Allen Ginsberg Trust, used with permission of the Wylie Agency LLC)
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The two men pose for the camera at right angles to each other. They’re in a room in Tangier in 1961. Nothing in the picture indicates place or time, though, and neither really matters to understanding the image. Clearly, it’s about who rather than where or when. You don’t have to know that the subjects are the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, in back, and Gregory Corso, in front, to realize this is the case. The photograph is all about the two individuals in it, both separately (each man has a striking appearance) and together. In fact, what most comes across is a sense of conjunction: “Siamese poetry twins,” as Ginsberg writes in his caption. True, a right angle, being square, isn’t exactly Beat geometry; but that very squareness makes the angle all the more solidly joined.

The photograph, which was likely taken by Ginsberg’s longtime lover, Peter Orlovsky, is one of some six dozen that make up “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” which will be at the National Gallery of Art through September 6. Ginsberg started taking photographs as a young man, in the 1940s, and kept doing so through 1963, when his camera was left behind on a trip to India. The result was a kind of Beat family photo album: informal, affectionate, full of personality—and personalities. We see, among others, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Orlovsky. Ginsberg liked to say he was “fooling around” with the camera (whether behind or before it). These were pictures, he felt, “meant more for a public in heaven than one here on earth—and that’s why they’re charming.” As befits such casually taken images, Ginsberg would have them developed at his corner drugstore.

“Every writer since the invention of the Kodak has probably made snapshots,” says Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery, who organized “Beat Memories.” Yet very few have amassed a notable body of photographic work. Ginsberg thus joins Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, Eudora Welty and Wright Morris (who’s probably better known today for his photographs than for his novels).

Ginsberg resumed taking pictures, more seriously, in the early 1980s. He was inspired by the example of an old friend, the photographer Robert Frank, and a new one, the photographer Berenice Abbott. “What’s interesting about Ginsberg is he makes a lot of pictures from 1953 to 1963,” says Greenough. “Then it’s only beginning in the early 1980s that he rediscovers them. By then he’s already established himself as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He can then, if you will, afford to turn his attention to photography. I think photography came at the right moment in Ginsberg’s career.”

Ginsberg began using better cameras and having his photographs printed professionally. “I had been taking pictures all along,” he told an interviewer in 1991, “but I hadn’t thought of myself as a photographer.” The most noticeable difference was a simple yet distinctive way he found to marry image and text. He began writing captions, sometimes quite lengthy, on each print. He extended the practice to earlier photographs, too. His images, Ginsberg felt, “all had a story to tell, especially the old ones,” and his captioning was a way of acknowledging that. Ginsberg’s printers had to start making his images smaller to leave room for the words he was writing beneath them—not so much captions, really, as brief excerpts from a running memoir.

Ginsberg spoke of his photographs as his “celestial snapshots.” He could as easily have been referring to artistic stardom as the heavens. In addition to shooting fellow Beats, Ginsberg photographed Robert Frank, Bob Dylan, the painter Francesco Clemente and the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The biggest star of all was Ginsberg himself. Not an especially handsome man, he nonetheless had an attractiveness the camera responded to. Frank considered a Richard Avedon nude portrait of Ginsberg and Orlovsky the best photograph the celebrated portraitist and fashion photographer ever took.

You can see in the double portrait with Corso how photogenic Ginsberg was (strange that he should look a bit like Arthur Miller in it). You can also see from the way he appraises the camera that this is someone already very much aware of the lens and what it can do. The camera’s partiality to Ginsberg is no less apparent in the self-portrait he took 35 years later on his 70th birthday. It’s evident how well he’s weathered the blunt passage of time (not something that can be said of Corso in Ginsberg’s 1995 portrait). The intensity of the gaze, the nest-like invitingness of the beard, the air of sage authority: Ginsberg has the look of a rather sexy, and very dapper, rabbi. How dandyish of him to note the provenance of his clothes. Have “Goodwill” and “Oleg Cassini” ever otherwise figured in the same sentence?

Mark Feeney, who covers the arts and photography for the Boston Globe, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Allen Ginsberg said his pictures "all had a story to tell" and added captions to help. He described the circumstances in which Jack Kerouac was "making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om" while strolling downtown Manhattan. (The Allen Ginsberg Trust, used with permission of the Wylie Agency LLC)
Ginsberg, facing the camera, believed that both poetry and photography could reveal "the luminousness of the ordinary event." (The Allen Ginsberg Trust, used with permission of the Wylie Agency LLC)
"Notice what you notice," Ginsberg told an audience in 1988. He adorned a 70th-birthday self-portrait with sartorial notes. (The Allen Ginsberg Trust, used with permission of the Wylie Agency LLC)
His caption on a 1995 portrait of Gregory Corso refers to the "messenger-god Hermes Caduceus"—the pin—"near his pen." (The Allen Ginsberg Trust, used with permission of the Wylie Agency LLC)
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, fire escape, 1953. (© 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Bill Burroughs, 1953. (© 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg, 1953. (Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg, 1955. (Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg, utility man…New York harbor, circa October 30, 1947. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Rebecca Ginsberg, Buba, wife of Pincus...Paterson, New Jersey April 1953. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs on roof of apartment house East Seventh Street where I had a flat…, Lower East Side Fall 1953. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover's eyes, afternoon light in window…New York, Fall 1953. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, We went uptown to look at Mayan Codices…here Egyptian wing William Burroughs with a brother Sphinx, Fall 1953 Manhattan. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Myself seen by William Burroughs…our apartment roof Lower East Side between Avenues B & C…Fall 1953. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, “Now Jack as I warned you… William Burroughs… lecturing…Jack Kerouac…Manhattan, 206 East 7th St. Apt. 16, Fall 1953. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and his love of that year the star-crossed Natalie Jackson…San Francisco, maybe March 1955. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Bob Donlon... Neal Cassady, myself…, Bay Area poets’ “Court Painter” Robert La Vigne & poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of his City Lights books shop…San Francisco spring 1956. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, his attic room Rue Git-de-Coeur..., 1956. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac the last time he visited my apartment 704 East 5th Street, N.Y.C.… Fall 1964 (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, I sat for decades at morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window…New York City August 18, 1984. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Francesco Clemente looking over hand-script album with new poem I’d written out for his Blake-inspired watercolor illuminations…Manhattan, October 1984… (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers with his portrait of poet John Ashbery’s poem “Pyrography” (1977), his studio Southhampton L. I. July 7, 1985… (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, 11 pm late March 1985, being driven home to 222 Bowery… (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs at rest in the side-yard of his house... Lawrence, Kansas May 28, 1991… (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Publisher-hero Barney Rossett…at Tower Books, N.Y. symposium... June 20, 1991. (National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky at James Joyce’s grave, 1980. (Collection of Gary S. Davis © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, 1955. (Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)
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