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Photos of the Beat Poet, Allen Ginsberg

Ever since the Dresser attended Anne Waldman's tribute reading of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," she has had it on her list to see the National Gallery of Art's exhibition "Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg." The show closes September 16, 2010. On August 28, 2010, the Dresser made her way to the exhibition through throngs of Tea Party folks who were leaving the "nonpolitical" event at the Lincoln Memorial where the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered his "I Had a Dream" speech 47 years on this day. The Dresser feels sure the spirit of Allen Ginsberg was hovering just outside the NGA to witness white men and women, some of them carrying "Don't Tread on Me" flags and dressed in Tea Party t-shirts and occasionally National Rifle Association ball caps, high on the religious rhetoric of conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck and the veiled political comments of presidential hopeful Sarah Palin.


The exhibition of 79 works displayed in three rooms is comprised of black-and-white photographs. These photos are portraits of Ginsberg and the people he knew, including such notorious literary characters as William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso. The show also included photos of his family members like his paternal grandmother whom he called Buba--Buba who had come to America, learned English, and had written a patriotic essay in her broken English entitled "God Blast America."

3107-025AGRooftop.jpgDare the Dresser say that the young Ginsberg in those 1950s style glasses with black frames (he often handed over his camera to friends like Bill Burroughs to have shots of himself taken) looked a lot like some of her own family members? Besides the fascination with his poems "Kaddish" and "Howl" and the weekend she spent in 1980 at a small conference in California, Pennsylvania with Ginsberg himself, the Dresser suddenly realizes the bearded poet (this was always the visage she knew) always seemed more familiar to her than just some celebrity poet--familiar, family, these words both come from a Middle English root meaning "of a household." Nonetheless, Ginsberg was not self-centered. He also captured family members of his friends. Still, these photos of people he only came in contact with because of his friends seemed to validate his own family situation, that is, ordinary people who, like his mother (she was institutionalized with mental problems), wore life on their faces like an open book.


Despite the predominance of male portraits, what impressed the Dresser was the humanity threaded by the running commentary of Ginsberg. In surprisingly legible handwriting, the controversial poet wrote the back-stories of each photograph. For example, a 1990 photo of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan shot in New York City explained how moments after the photo was taken a group of homeless men chased Dylan and Ginsberg out of the small city park because they believed the pair were shooting photos of them.

Clearly some of the plain portraits benefit from the back-story inscriptions. For example, the 1964 shot of an old Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg says this photo made Kerouac look like the late senior Kerouac. And again note how Ginsberg had his eye to his friend's family.

There are also images that speak a world by themselves but clearly benefit from Ginsberg's text. The 1953 drawing room shot of Burroughs and Kerouac shows the Naked Lunch author, eyes closed with hand out to the younger man. Without reading Ginsberg's words, one knows Burroughs is instructing Kerouac with some impassioned counsel. 3107-028BB-JK.jpgGinsberg wrote these words which also serve as the title of the photo, "Now Jack as I warned you far back as 1945..." According to Ginsberg, Burroughs was telling the On the Road author (On the Road was written in 1951 but not published until 1957) he needed to sever the strangling ties to his mother. Kerouac, who called his mother Memère (which means granny or grandma in French), said his mother was the only woman he ever loved.

One funky photo shot in Tangier serves as a symbolic still life of the Beat Generation that includes Burroughs, composer-novelist Paul Bowles (he holds a camera), and Gregory Corso. In the background are two teenage boys crouching behind these men as if they were eager to catch their fire. However, Ginsberg's text calls the boys shades and said they died young.

Relationships clearly were a theme of importance to Ginsberg who notes on a portrait of Lucien Carr that this was the man who introduced Ginsberg to Kerouac. Further Internet research also informed the Dresser that Carr, who stabbed a man to death--the man had been stalking Carr for years, also introduced Burroughs to Kerouac. (Dear Reader, you might know that Burroughs accidentally killed his wife when he was trying to shoot an apple off her head with an arrow.) Kerouac was nabbed as a material witness in the murder Carr committed and to extricate himself from jail after his father refused to help him, Kerouac married his girl friend Edie Parker (that marriage was annulled after one year). One of the Ginsberg photo shows Jack and Edie on a bed with their feet pointing to an open window. She is sitting up and he is lying down. They look like friends hanging out on a dark day with nothing to do. Nothing to do except let Ginsberg shoot a photo of them.

Overall, Ginsberg had some unusual friends--there are photos of Carl Solomon (the man Ginsberg met during a stay in a mental institution and who figures into the poem "Howl") and Wavy Gravy (a Vietnam antiwar demonstrator and the chief of security at Woodstock). Clearly many of Ginsberg's friends were outside ordinary social boundaries, but so was he.


Does Ginsberg, the photographer, compare with someone like Diane Arbus, who photographed deviant and marginalized people? No, the Dresser says emphatically, but the combination of image and text makes for an exceptional artistic work, one that is very personalized to the writer Allen Ginsberg. Photographers Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott encouraged Ginsberg and suggested that he annotate each photo. Frank was an unusually articulate image man. Frank said things like, "When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice." And, "It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph." And, "There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment." Ginsberg was pretty good at capturing the humanity of the moment in his photography but more so in his poetry.


By the way, there is only one quote from Ginsberg's poetry in the exhibition and that was taken from "Kaddish." "Kaddish" is Ginsberg's word portrait of his psychotic mother Naomi who believed her husband's family, including Buba, were out to get her. Ginsberg's poem was the result of several things--he missed her funeral in June of 1956 because he was in California, the Jewish prayer for the dead, kaddish, was not said for his mother because there were not enough men at the funeral to create a minyan, and two years after, a friend facilitated the recitation of kaddish for Ginsberg's mother. In this poem, Ginsberg, like he does in the photographs of himself naked, lets it all hang out. In this passage drawn from Part II, Naomi has a conversation with God and Ginsberg who was then a student at Columbia University inserts the cruel reality of his mother's situation.

..........Naomi: 'And when we die we become an onion, a cabbage, a carrot, or a squash, a vegetable.' I come downtown from Columbia and agree. She reads the Bible, thinks beautiful thoughts all day.
..........'Yesterday I saw God, What did he look like? Well, in the afternoon I climbed up a ladder--he has a cheap cabin in the country, like Monroe, N. Y. the chicken farms in the wood. He was a lonely old man with a white beard.
..........'I cooked supper for him. I made him a nice supper--lentil soup, vegetables, bread & butter--miltz--he sat down at the table and ate, he was sad.
..........'I told him, Look at all those fightings and killings down there, What's the matter? Why don't you put a stop to it?
..........'I try, he said--That's all he could do, he looked tired. He's a bachelor so long, and he likes lentil soup.'
..........Serving me meanwhile, a plate of cold fish--chopped raw cabbage dript with tapwater--smelly tomatoes--week-old health food--grated beets & carrots with leaky juice, warm--more and more disconsolate food--I can't eat it for nausea sometimes--the Charity of her hands stinking with Manhattan, madness, desire to please me, cold undercooked fish--pale red near the bones. Her smells--and oft naked in the room, so that I stare ahead, or turn a book ignoring her.

Allen Ginsberg

Copyright © 1960 Allen Ginsberg

from Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960

Photo #1:
Allen Ginsberg, Myself seen by William Burroughs...our apartment roof Lower East Side between Avenues B & C...Fall 1953
gelatin silver print; 1953; printed 1984-1997
image: 28.58 x 43.82 cm (11 1/4 x 17 1/4 in)
sheet: 40.5 x 50.5 cm (15 15/16 x 19 7/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis
Copyright (c) 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved.
DEX: 25 / Accession #: 2009.108.1 / Object ID: 143966

Photo #2:
Allen Ginsberg, "Now Jack as I warned you... William Burroughs... lecturing...Jack Kerouac...Manhattan, 206 East 7th St. Apt. 16, Fall 1953
gelatin silver print; 1953; printed 1984-1997
image: 28.3 x 44.2 cm (11 1/8 x 17 3/8 in)
sheet: 40.4 x 50.2 cm (15 7/8 x 19 3/4 in)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis
Copyright (c) 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved.
DEX: 28 / Accession #: 2009.103.8 / Object ID: 143969


Comments (1)

This is a fascinating article. If the exhibit is half as insightful as this description, I will run--not walk--there. So many facts and fantasies I had forgotten pop up in this piece. Thank goodness there are people outside of the databases of our own heads to write wonderful informed perceptions of the world around us.

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