SAN FRANCISCO — A huge photo mural of a young man posed on a New York rooftop looks out on to Yerba Buena Lane, a busy downtown San Francisco pedestrian walkway, from a ground-level gallery window of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It is a 19- by 25-foot black-and-white image of the poet Allen Ginsberg from 1953, and it beckons visitors inside to take a look at him and other leaders of the Beat Generation through an unexpected lens.
Many are familiar with Ginsberg and his friends, lovers and fellow travelers like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti through the printed and spoken word. But now, thanks to an exhibition titled, Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg, we can literally get a glimpse into their lives and relationships with one another. The show, which opened this past Thursday, runs through September 8.
After more than half a century, the Beats are again having a moment. A new generation is discovering their counterculture rejection of post-WWII materialism and conformity with the recent release of dramatic features about Ginsberg like “Howl,” starring James Franco, and “Kill Your Darlings,” with Daniel Radcliffe playing the poet, as well as the more Kerouac-focused “On The Road” and “Big Sur.” But while these films provide an artistic interpretation, Ginsberg’s photos are a more direct, intimate and authentic picture of their lives.
Ginsberg was considered one of the most visionary writers of his time, though few knew that for many years, as he was picking away on his typewriter and conducting public readings of his provocative poems, he was also photographing the people who meant the most to him. Between 1953 and 1963, his camera was always close at hand.
There are some 75 black and white images in the show arranged mainly in chronological order, but also grouped according to subject or location. Although some are well composed, it is immediately evident Ginsberg was more interested in chronicling his everyday life and relationships than making photographic art.
Most compelling are the photos from the 1950s showing the Beats at the height of their youthful rebellious creativity. Visitors linger as they pass photos of Jack Kerouac, making “a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om” as he wanders along New York’s East 7th Street, or smoking on the fire escape of Ginsberg’s apartment near Tompkins Park. Also captivating are pictures like the one of William Burroughs admonishing Kerouac for still living with his mother as they have a conversation on an ornately patterned sofa in a dimly lit room, and the one of Neal Cassady with his girlfriend Natalie Jackson embracing on the sidewalk under a movie theater marquee in San Francisco.
An image of Kerouac taken only a decade later, on his last visit to Ginsberg’s New York apartment, astounds in its portrayal of how rapidly Kerouac had aged as a result of heavy drinking and hard living. He would be dead at age 47, within a handful of years of the shutter’s snapping.
“The act of shooting the photographs, Ginsberg later remembered, never lasted more than five or ten minutes, was never forced or artificial, but was simply a part of their daily lives, as natural as talking or writing. The photographs themselves, casual and unselfconscious, were ‘keepsakes,’ which he made to record ‘certain moments in eternity’ but with no intention of showing them to anyone beyond his friends,” wrote Sarah Greenough, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which originated the exhibition.
But when he lost his camera while travelling in Southeast Asia with his lifelong partner Peter Orlovsky, he simply stopped photographing. It was only in 1983, that Ginsberg, by then known not only as a poet, but also as a vociferous political and social activist (the anti-war movement, gay rights and the legalization of drugs were among his causes, as was his defense of the North American Man/Boy Love Association), rediscovered his long forgotten collection of photographs. Encouraged by renowned photographers Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott, he reprinted them (from drugstore negatives) in larger formats and added extensive inscriptions below each.
The inscriptions were in his own hand and described the people, places and events seen, “revealing the clear, sharp epiphanies that a celebration of the quotidian can engender,” as Greenough put it in the exhibition catalogue. When he was in the picture, he always made sure to note the photographer (usually Burroughs or Orlovsky).
“The captions give insight into his writer self, his lover self, his friend self, and his documentarian self,” commented Colleen Stockmann, who curated the show for the Contemporary Jewish Museum, as she walked through it with a reporter.
“It’s so next level, so Ginsberg,” she said of the inscriptions. “The pieces are not finished without the captions.”
Ginsberg’s practice of adding the detailed descriptions continued as he resumed photographing friends and loved ones, as well as himself, from 1983 until his death from liver cancer in 1997 at age 70. A practicing Buddhist, he was buried in his family’s plot in a Jewish cemetery.
Ginsberg was born in New Jersey to a teacher and poet father and communist activist mother, who suffered from mental illness and spent much of her son’s youth in institutions. As a young man, he studied at Columbia University on a scholarship, and also worked in the merchant marine to help pay for his education. It was at Columbia and at various other New York locales that he met many of the artists who would become identified, along with him, as the founders of the Beat movement.
While New York was his home for most of his life, and he also spent years traveling (mainly with Orlovsky, but sometimes also with his other friends), Ginsberg is also closely associated with San Francisco where he lived from 1955 to 1957. There he wrote his seminal poem, “Howl.”
The 3-part poem was first performed at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. Not long afterwards, it was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Press. Ferlinghetti and his bookstore manager were arrested for publishing and disseminating obscene material, namely “Howl,” with its many references to illicit drug use and heterosexual and homosexual practices. Ferlinghetti won the case, with the judge stating that Ginsberg’s poem had “redeeming social importance.”
Ginsberg’s voice is heard reciting an excerpt from “Howl” and other poems on a 15-minute audio loop playing in an alcove of the deliberately modern exhibition gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Laminated cards with the poem texts (the others being “A Supermarket in California,” “Transcription of Organ Music,” an excerpt from “Kaddish,” and “Father Death Blues”) are available for visitors to read as they listen to Ginsberg on the live recordings made in San Francisco, primarily in the late 1950s.
The museum also added two long tables with books relating to Ginsberg and the Beat Generation to the exhibition, inviting visitors to linger and learn more about the people looking on from the walls.
The addition of the audio loop and the reading area are an attempt by the museum to link the exhibition’s historical value to its contemporary relevance. The inclusion, both on the tape and on the tables, of “Kaddish,” the poem Ginsberg wrote in memory of his mother, was important in terms of making obvious the exhibition’s link to Jewish culture and experience.
Connie Wolf, the museum’s former director, was resolved that the Contemporary Jewish Museum be the first Jewish museum to show “Beat Memories” and incoming director Lori Starr is excited that the show is in place as she arrives from Toronto’s Koffler Center of the Arts to assume her new position. Dedicated to making sure that exhibitions serve as conversation starters and that the museum is an incubator of new ideas, she told The Times of Israel she is looking forward to the various public programs related to “Beat Memories” already scheduled, including an Allen Ginsberg Festival in July. The exhibition is also strategically timed to coincide with San Francisco’s LGBT Pride celebrations in late June.
A controversial figure, Ginsberg was not everyone’s cup of tea. But that should not keep museum-goers away from this exhibition. “These photographs are about looking at him as a human and as a good friend to these people,” Stockmann said. “The love that Ginsberg had for these people is palpable.”