May 23, 2013–Sep 8, 2013
Through over seventy photographs by renowned poet, Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), Beat Memories tenderly captures the young writers and rebels that would define the Beat Generation.
The snapshots in Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg provide an intimate portrait of the hard-edged Beat Generation on the cusp of fame that would transform their lives and our cultural history. The late 1940s and early 1950s marked a crucial period for Allen Ginsberg as he found his poetic and sexual voices simultaneously. In 1947 he took a course with respected art historian Meyer Shapiro on modern art in which he became familiar with Paul Cezanne’s artwork and artistic process. Ginsberg was particularly enamored with Cezanne’s notion of “petite sensations” derived from nature “and that he could ‘stand on a hill and merely by moving [his] head half an inch the composition of the landscape was totally changed.’”
Organized by the National Gallery of Art, curator of the exhibition Sarah Greenough notes, “each picture represents an ‘intimate communication’ between [Ginsberg] and another human being, and he strove to make each one express not only something of that exchange but the integrity of the individual before him.” One such individual is Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg yearned at length for Kerouac and the crush is palpable in the photos. Ginsberg came out to Kerouac while they were at Columbia University and later remarked: “I knew he was going to accept my soul with all its throbbings and sweetness and worries and dark woes and sorrows and heartaches and joys and glees and mad understandings of mortality, ‘cause that was the same thing he had.”
While there are numerous photos of the young Beats we have come to know—beautiful, dynamic, and promising—Ginsberg reveals the Beats as his friends and lovers in all their flawed vulnerability. In the 1964 image of Kerouac a handful of years before his death, Ginsberg’s inscription reads in part: “he looked by that time like his father, red-faced corpulent WC Fields shuddering with a mortal horror . . .” This image of Kerouac and late images of William S. Burroughs from the 1980s serve as incredible portraits of time and enduring affection. These unlikely images are some of the most surprising and engaging.
With the purchase of a Kodak Retina camera in 1953, Ginsberg began to take photos more regularly. After a decade of visually documenting his friends, lovers, and worlds, he largely left the camera behind in 1963. The images and negatives were kept safe and in the 1980s Ginsberg asked archivist Bill Morgan to catalog his archive at Columbia University; in doing so, Morgan came across the trove of photographs and negatives. It was at this point that Ginsberg starting taking new photos of the Beats that remained and other friends including painter Francesco Clemente and Bob Dylan. With the encouragement of photographers Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott, Ginsberg reprinted many of the photographs and added inscriptions. Greenough explains “In a scrawling hand and now familiar voice, with words that seem to tumble over one another in rich exuberance, he described the people, places, and events depicted, revealing the clear, sharp epiphanies that a celebration of the quotidian can engender.”
Greenough further explains the multifold functions of the captions in the catalog essay which she says, “most immediately . . . slow us down.” The time and attention required to decipher Ginsberg’s text beneath the images reveals the “destiny of a lifetime in a glimpse” that he described in poetry and photos. The process of truly taking in the photographs becomes a meditation—on Ginsberg, on the beauty of the vernacular, on the present.
In the late 1980s and 90s Ginsberg generated a series of talks titled “Snapshot Poetics” or “Photographic Poetics” in which he expounded on the connections between poetry and photography. In a 1988 talk at Harvard, Ginsberg closed with directives equally applicable for the poet or the photographer—or in our case, the museum-goer: “Ordinary mind includes eternal perceptions. Notice what you notice. Observe what’s vivid. Catch yourself thinking. Vividness is self-selecting. And remember the future.”
—Colleen Stockmann, Assistant Curator
Born and raised in New Jersey, Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) moved to New York City in 1943 to begin undergraduate study at Columbia University. There he met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, who would become leading Beat figures. In 1953, Ginsberg purchased a small, secondhand Kodak camera and began photographing himself and his friends in New York, San Francisco, and on his travels around the world. At the same time, he was developing his poetic voice. In 1955 he read his provocative and now-famous poem “Howl” to a cheering audience at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Both Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Ginsberg’s “Howl” were immediately hailed as captivating if challenging expressions of new voices and new visions for American literature. Celebrating personal freedom, sexual openness, and spontaneity, the two writers came to be seen as the embodiment of a younger generation—the Beats—who rejected middle-class American values and aspirations, and decried materialism and conformity.
Ginsberg abandoned photography in 1963, concentrating instead on his literary career. He wrote and published deeply moving and highly influential poetry for the rest of his life, including Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960 (1961) and The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1972), which was awarded a National Book Award in 1974. Using his fame to advance social causes, he also continued to capture public attention as an outspoken opponent to the Vietnam War and American militarism, and as a champion of free speech, gay rights, and oppressed people around the world.
Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Presenting partnership for this exhibition is provided by an anonymous donor. Supporting sponsorship has been provided by The Jim Joseph Foundation, BNY Mellon, Joyce Baskin Linker, and Richard Nagler and Sheila Sosnow.
The Koret and Taube Foundations are the Lead Supporters of the 2012–13 exhibition season.