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