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Visualizing the Beat Generation - Exploring the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg’s Photography


July 28, 2023

By Kame Hame


Visualizing the Beat Generation - Exploring the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg’s Photography

On October 7th, 1955, Allen Ginsberg took the stage at the newly established "6" Gallery in San Francisco and, for the first time, publicly read his now most celebrated poem Howl. The audience gazed at the young poet, mesmerized by his words, inflamed by his anger towards what he saw as the destruction of humanity by modern machinery. Unknowingly they have just witnessed the birth of the Beat Generation and the moment in which Ginsberg earned a place in America's literary pantheon. The relentless pursuit of personal and artistic freedom led the poet to become a Buddhist, mystic, teacher, activist, and photographer as he sought a deeper understanding of humanity.

Over the course of his career spanning several decades, the poet took thousands of photographs of his friends and lovers. Allen Ginsberg's photography gives joyful, often tender, sometimes profound insights into a world that was otherwise closed to the public. The upcoming exhibition Muses & Self: Photographs by Allen Ginsberg at The Fahey/Klein Gallery offers a unique glimpse into the world of the most prominent figure of the Beat Generation through the lens of his most personal photographs.

The First Camera

In 1953, Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) bought his first camera, a second-hand Kodak Retina, in a pawnshop for thirteen dollars. When asked why he chose that particular model, he explained it was convenient as it could fit comfortably inside his pocket, only to be taken out when needed. This playful attitude can also be seen in how he would snap shots of his friends, colleagues, and lovers - without staging, done in several minutes.

Although some critics had negative comments about Ginsberg's photographs, seeing them as nothing more than creations of amateur, what they might not have understood, is that he successfully created an atmosphere of spontaneity and playfulness with his subjects. He managed to capture a side of them not many have seen, as many deeply valued their privacy while others burdened by fame were pulled away from the public eye. Allen Ginsberg's photography career had two distinct periods, from the early 1950s to the 1960s and from the 1980s until he died in 1997.

A Portrait Of Beat Generation

Ginsberg's photographs from the first period featured some of the most renowned American writers of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac, Hart Crane, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady. Like his poetry, the images show his avid observation of the world, his respect for the present moment, and his admiration of the beauty of the vernacular. Ginsberg greatly valued the remarkable power of photography to capture the moment and make it last forever. Like a time machine, it can transport one into the moment it was taken. Ginsberg said:

My interest in pictures was more sacramental than photographic. I didn't see myself as a recorder of events or as being involved in a continuous reportage.

Although the Beat Generation was infamous for its bohemian lifestyle, which included drugs, alcohol, and sex, Allen Ginsberg's photographs never show this side. They are affectionate portraits, moments of friendship or tenderness, that often show the playful side of his subjects, such as the portrait of stone-faced William Burroughs next to a stone chimera or of Jack Kerouac pulling a funny face. For Ginsberg, photography and poetry both had the power to reveal "the luminousness of the ordinary event."

A Guru Of The American Youth

The first period of Ginsberg's photographic endeavor ended in the 1960s when he lost his camera. For twenty years, they lay forgotten in a desk drawer as he concentrated on his poetry and activism - protesting against the Vietnam War, censorship, and nuclear weapons and becoming an advocate for gay liberation, human rights, and freedom of speech. When book Howl and Other Poems (1956) was published, it was translated into 22 languages and became the most-read poem of the century. Another acclaimed piece was the emotional poem Kaddish, published in 1961.

Ginsberg became fascinated with Eastern religions. He traveled to India to learn from Hindu gurus and the Himalayas to acquire a deeper knowledge of Buddhism. In the late 1960s, he became the guru of the American youth counterculture, creating a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental through his work.

The Second Period of Allen Ginsberg's Photography

Ginsberg never published his early photographs, for they were "meant more for a public in heaven than one here on earth—and that's why they're charming." Instead, together with his personal papers, he gave them to Columbia University to be stored in their archive. They remained there until a cataloger discovered them and contacted the poet, hoping he would identify the people in the photos. Encouraged by his friends, photographers Berenice Abbott and Robert Frank, Ginsberg reprinted them and added inscriptions that listed the details about the subject and the moment the photo was taken. Inspired by the process, he once again felt the call to pick up the camera, and on Frank's advice, he chose Leica. Allen Ginsberg's photography entered its second period that lasted from the 1980s until his death in 1997.

Allen Ginsberg began taking closer shots of his subjects, creating a more intimate atmosphere. With Robert Frank, he founded and taught a course, Photographic Poetics, in which he traced the "origins of the imagistic ground of poetry that I had learned from Williams and its relation to the photographic practice." The poet was inspired by the works of such innovative photographs as Jim Goldberg, Elsa Dorfman, and Duane Michals, who combined images with words and filled his later images with handwritten captions. These shots feature old and new friends, such as Hunter S Thompson, Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, and Larry Rivers, to name a few. Allen Ginsberg's photography and poems have elevated him into an enduring symbol of artistic rebellion and the search for individual and collective enlightenment.

Muses & Self At Fahey/Klein Gallery

In conjunction with the exhibition Muses & Self: Photographs by Allen Ginsberg, the Fahey/Klein Gallery will host a preview of A Picture of My Mind: Poems Written by Allen Ginsberg's Photographs. This enactment of a dialogue between Ginsberg's portraiture and poetry was generated by an AI-powered version of Ginsberg's own text corpus in response to specific photographs. The project was realized in collaboration with poetry collective theVERSEverse, and their member pioneer code poet Ross Goodwin.

The exhibition Muses & Self: Photographs by Allen Ginsberg at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles will be on view from August 10th until September 23rd, 2023.