Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Beat Poet's Amateur Reproductions of His Coterie

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Beat Poet's Amateur Reproductions of His Coterie

Article excerpt

A Grey Art Gallery show in New York offers a riveting look at the beginnings of a broader cultural revolution, as seen in the photographs of Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was a great poet but not a great photographer. So while "Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg" at the Grey Art Gallery is an interesting exhibition, it is in certain ways disappointing.

The best you can say about the pictures Ginsberg took during two periods in which he dabbled in the medium -- the 1950s and early 1960s and the 1980s and 1990s -- is that they are the works of a competent amateur. The bigger disappointment, however, is that much of the history that Ginsberg lived through and did so much to alter as a countercultural activist is missing.

The exhibition was organized by Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art, where it had its debut in 2010.

From the early 1950s to about 1964, Ginsberg regularly used a cheap camera to take snapshots of his now famous pals, including the writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, as well as Neal Cassady, their logorrheic muse. Knowing that these young bucks were reanimating American literature and were in the process of sowing the seeds of a broader cultural revolution makes them riveting to look at. But considering the incendiary stuff they were writing -- "Howl," "On the Road," "Junkie" -- and their bohemian lifestyles dedicated to the pursuit of sex, drugs and jazz, the photographs are remarkably tame.

Almost all are affectionate, more or less straightforward portraits made indoors and out. Many have a subtly playful spirit, like one of the poker-faced Burroughs standing next to a stone chimera in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1953 -- "a brother Sphinx," Ginsberg notes in a caption handwritten on a later print from the original negative. But whatever embarrassing or illicit behavior was going on in Ginsberg's circle he left off camera.

Two pictures from 1964, however, are especially resonant. One shows Cassady lying in a bed, staring upward next to a woman who is languidly smoking a cigarette. Sunlight pours in through windows at the foot of the bed. They are at Millbrook, the New York estate that Timothy Leary and his fellow psychedelic explorers occupied at the time.

Ginsberg had joined Ken Kesey and his coterie, the Merry Pranksters, when their bus, driven mainly by Cassady, stopped in New York City. They went to Millbrook in hopes of having a meeting of minds with their East Coast comrades in their campaign for consciousness expansion. Leary refused to see them, however, and they left in disappointment, but not before Cassady spent some time tripping on the high-potency psychedelic drug DMT, according to Ginsberg's annotation on a later print of the image. …

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