Allen Ginsberg's Surprisingly Good Photos


Allen Ginsberg/National Gallery of Art

We don't remember Allen Ginsberg for his photographs. When they began to receive attention in the 1990s, even the poet himself was skeptical. In an interview with Thomas Gladysz, he mused, "if you're famous you can get away with anything...I know a lot of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don't have a big pretty coffee table book like I have."

Ginsberg was not trying to be boastful or sardonic. He was stating the obvious. We would not be looking at his pictures if he wasn't Allen Ginsberg, and if his chosen subjects didn't consist of a who's who of mid-century writers: William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and others. Nevertheless, Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC offers a fascinating glimpse into the writer's life, relationships, and worldview.

Ginsberg honed his interest in photography in 1953, when he purchased a used Kodak camera. He rediscovered his early snapshots in the 1980's and recognized their charm and historical importance. The photographer Robert Frank introduced the poet to his own printers, who transformed Ginsberg's hoard of drugstore prints into museum-quality images. Ginsberg then scrawled explanatory comments at the bottom of each photograph.

The experience of reconnecting with his old pictures inspired Ginsberg to pick up where he left off, creating images of himself and his friends as they grew older. There is a strange dichotomy between Ginsberg's early photographs and his later works. His pictures from the 1950's and 1960's celebrate youthful exuberance, creativity and the bond between him and his fellow writers. The portraits from the 80's and 90's illustrate the toll that time, drugs, and hard living took on too many of Ginsberg's vibrant young friends. These latter images are straightforward and honest, but often heart-wrenchingly sad.

Ginsburg did not see his photographs as works of art, but as snapshots recording experiences he shared with loved ones. He wrote that each photo was a "fleeting moment in a floating world." His images never feel posed or artificial, and the intimacy between subject and photographer is palpable. His models are in their element and appear comfortable and relaxed.

Some of Ginsberg's earliest photographs are of Burroughs, the novelist who stayed with him for several months in 1953. The two men shared an intellectual and romantic connection, and their intimacy radiates from Ginsberg's pictures. At the bottom of one print, Ginsberg scrawled, "am hung up in a great psychic marriage with him for the month." In one of Ginsberg's more powerful portraits, he describes Burroughs "sad lover's eyes." The tall, severe-looking writer sits in a dark room, his strong features softened by the dim light. The afternoon sun streams in, illuminating his shirt, mouth, and chin. Burroughs' expression is partly concealed by shadows, but his affection for the photographer shines through. In another image, Ginsberg has captured his friend standing next to a "brother Sphinx" in the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - two enigmas staring straight at the camera. In this low-key, gentle way, Ginsberg pokes fun at his friend's stiffness and serious expression.

For a time, Ginsburg was unrequitedly in love with the handsome but heterosexual Kerouac. He took many photos of Kerouac's beautiful, expressive face, often capturing fleeting playful moments. Ginsberg also shows us the staggering toll that Kerouac's decadent, Bohemian existence took on his appearance. The 1964 portrait of Kerouac, taken 5 years before Kerouac died from internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis, is perhaps the most shocking picture in the show. In 11 years, the once beautiful young man has aged three decades. Ginsberg wrote in the below caption, "he looked by then like his late father, red-faced corpulent W. C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror, grimacing on D.M.T."

We also follow the life of Peter Orlovsky, a fellow poet and Ginsberg's lifelong love. We meet Peter in 1955 when he is clean-cut and youthful. Then, we see him as a long-haired '60s Bohemian, accompanying Ginsberg on his world travels. A 1987 photo features Orlovsky with his ailing family. The poet sits on a twin bed next to his brother, his mentally ill, paranoid sister, and their mother, whose hearing was destroyed after a drunk surgeon botched her mastoid surgery. While brutal, the photograph embodies what is great about Ginsberg's work. He does not shy away from intense human experience. Orlovsky is no longer a beautiful, carefree youth, but the picture allows us to see another side of this sensitive man. We see his pain, his love for his family and his loyal and kind nature.

Ginsberg's objectivity does not waver when he turns his lens on himself. In his youth, we see him laughing, smoking, and having a good time. By contrast, in his 1991 self-portrait, he stands naked in front of a mirror. Older, frail and rotund, Ginsberg has an honesty and self-acceptance that recalls the famous naked self-portrait of Alice Neel at age 80.

While poignant and well-composed, Ginsberg's pictures do not add up to great art. But creating masterpieces was not his goal: that's what his poetry was for. Ultimately, what makes his photographs great is not their formal qualities. The pictures are memorable today because they are imbued with Ginsberg's kindness, empathy, and humanism.