May 31, 2010

Snapshot Poetics

On Sunday May 23 The National Gallery of Art senior curator and head of the Department of Photographs, Sarah Greenough, gave a lecture titled ‘Seeing with the Eyes of the Angels’, presented in association with the first scholarly exhibition of American poet Allen Ginsberg’s photographs. Juxtaposing more than seventy images of artists, friends, and lovers, Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg explores a five-decade photographic inquiry by one of our most celebrated writers.

Allen Ginsberg was the most important poet of the Beat movement and his seminal work is the poem “Howl”, whose title summed up in a single syllable the whole attitude and style of the new social and literary ferment. Ginsberg’s poems lacked rhyme and reverence and were shocking to the conservative sensibility of the times. One of the most brilliant and gifted writers of his generation, Allen Ginsberg was also a photographer. From 1953 until 1963 Ginsberg made numerous portraits of himself and his friends, including Beat writers William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso. To Ginsberg photography was a new way to approach the creative process. Many of his early photographs were taken in New York City, the center of the Beat movement, where the poet and his associates spent a great deal of time writing and listening to jazz. Ginsberg abandoned photography in 1963 but returned to it in the early 1980’s, encouraged by photographers Berenice Abbott and Robert Frank. He reprinted much of his early work and began making new portraits, adding often lengthy hand-written inscriptions.

The principal ideas of Ginsberg’s poetry - jazz-like spontaneity and improvisation- also apply to his photography. However, it is the subject matter of his photographs that makes them so poignant and compelling. Ginsberg’s photographs offer a unique look at the writers and personalities of the Beat and counterculture generation from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. His work, both poetic and photographic, celebrates the lives of his subjects and illuminates Ginsberg’s own acceptance of and insight into his “intense observation of the world, a deep appreciation of the beauty of the vernacular, a celebration of the sacredness of the present, and a faith in intuitive expression”

In one of the earliest photographs Ginsberg focuses on a close-up shot of Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s animated and expressive face represents a man who is marked by impulsive vehemence and passion. On The Road, probably the most important work of Beat prose, was first typed on a roll of paper in one 250 foot long paragraph. To the Beats, the best writing was considered that which was spontaneous. “First thought, best thought” as Allen Ginsberg put it.

Ginsberg’s many early photographs of William Burroughs are powerful and revealing. He often took photographs of his indefatigable mentor whom he and Kerouac referred to as ‘the great teacher of the night’. One of the most interesting uses of improvisation in Beat literature is the ‘cut-up’ method used by William S. Burroughs. After writing a paragraph, it would be ‘cut-up’ into segments or phrases of varying length and then would be randomly pasted together. Often, in Naked Lunch, Junkie, and many of his other works, the written paragraph would appear immediately followed by its ‘cut-up’ version. As a chapter progressed and its content increased the ‘cut-up’ would be revisited again and again, each time embodying new text and therefore new ‘cut-up’ elements. The effect can be almost mesmerizing. The ‘cut-up’ paragraphs give the feeling and flavor of the original while being disjointed and sometimes nonsensical.

Ginsberg’s later photographs seem to connect in startling ways, especially with his image of Jack Kerouac several years before his death in 1969. Ginsberg’s caption reads “Jack Kerouac on visit to Manhattan, last time he stopped at my apartment 704 East 5th Street, Lower East Side, he then looked like his father, corpulent red-faced W.C. Fields yawning with mortal horror, eyes closed a moment on D.M.T. visions - I'd brought some back from Millbrook where I'd recently been with Neal Cassady in Kesey's bus, Pre-election 1964 Fall”.

If the work is about aging, it is also about mortality and finds its most powerful focus in the image of his uncle Abe, as he lays on his hospital bed at the age of 87 in the Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center in West Orange, N.J. Ginsberg candidly writes “He was too weak to sip from a straw. He lifted his hand as I stood at the foot of the bed with camera. He died a week and half later. He had whispered, “I love you” when I first came in his room”. These photographs of the last moments of life coupled with commentaries written after the death of the subject constitute photography as epitaph.

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg is on view in the National Gallery’s West Building through September 17.

All photographs courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. Copyright 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved.