The “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” collection, currently on display at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, is, to say enough, engaging. There’s certainly something subtly exciting about seeing a young William S. Burroughs with a young Jack Kerouac, but it suggests that excitement is better attributed to the subjects’ proto-celebrity rather than quality of the picture itself. On the other hand, Ginsberg (CC’48) admitted that he never intended the photos to be displayed publicly, thus it would make sense why most of the photos are a bit amateurish. Nevertheless, no one wants to see a bunch of average photos, no matter who takes them.
So why go? The most fascinating aspect of the exhibit lies in the exhibit’s texts, as opposed to its visuals. Beat artifacts are displayed in glass cases throughout the gallery space, and contain a myriad of collectors’ dream pieces: mint condition first editions of Junkie, On the Road, and Howl; letters to editors; letters from editors; notes postmarked from Europe. It is – with some irony – within these items and Ginsberg’s poetic photo captions that the viewer gets a truly personal picture of the Beat Generation.
The majority of the exhibit is dedicated to photos Ginsberg took during the 1950s and ‘60s. These early photos are oddly tame, but perhaps less so when one considers them in a context of fuel for private nostalgia. The names and associated likenesses are enough to conjure reminiscences in the unaffiliated viewer – Neal Cassady a perfect Dean Moriarty, William S. Burroughs a perfect intellectual addict, Peter Orlovsky a perfect lover – but would obviously be more evocative for one who associated with these characters personally, explicit content not required. Although many of the photos are blurry or awkwardly framed, there’s an honesty in their imperfection that suggests something more personal than the prints of a professional. As for the captions, some describe the basic who, what, when, where, while others reveal more about Ginsberg the man. Beneath photos like those of his grandmother, Bob Dylan, and himself in the merchant marines (where he served while on suspension from Columbia), is information that does more than identify key players to posterity: it gives insight to events Ginsberg and likely his companions considered influential and dear.
The later photos, circa 1983 til Allen Ginsberg’s death in 1997, are simply not as interesting. A few are from Ginsberg’s travels in Russia, India, Morocco, and Tangier and are of him standing in front of things, simply as proof that he was there. Others are, as another viewer described, “selfies of him in weird places,” like the optometrist’s office or bathroom. Still more are of the poet with contemporary celebrities like Lou Reed and Madonna. Although these photos still give a sense of what Ginsberg’s life was like, that sense is tainted by the pictures’ purposefulness. The modest, “charming” early or pre-monolithism of Burroughs, Kerouac, and company is replaced in these later photos by mainstream, high profile people in their mainstream, high profile settings.
Sure the later photos are worth a glimpse, but the most amount of time should be devoted to the various Generation memorabilia in the display cases across the floor. The excerpts and letters offer an unparalleled look into the styles and personalities of Beat figures as well as an official, behind the scenes historical account, complete in Hermes 3000 typeface. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s harsh yet witty, intelligent letter to the editor of Penthouse is a prime example of this record, as he lambasts the magazine for over-editing an interview he’d done with them. In his final jab, Ferlinghetti writes, “I would like to thank you for calling me ‘the man who founded the “Beat”’ generation’ which I certainly am not. My name is not Allen Ginsberg.”
No, Allen Ginsberg was not a stellar photographer, but that shouldn’t deter from visiting the exhibit. Whether you respect it or not, the Beat Generation was one of the most influential counter-cultural movements of the 20th century. Though the photographs are only pretty good, the revelations disclosed in text littered throughout the gallery are well worth the suggested donation. If you’re remotely intrigued by the Beats, go.
The exhibit runs through April 6 at the Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East.
Duckface via Wikimedia Commons