Point Counterpoint: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg
Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University
January 15 to April 6, 2013
Grey Art Gallery, New York University,
100 Washington Square East,
New York City, 212-998-6780
We have all heard of Allen Ginsberg, the ecstatic poet of Howl and “Walt Whitman in the Supermarket,” but not quite as many know that he was an assiduous documentary photographer who focused on relatives, friends, and lovers. As a way of recording the moment by someone who fully believed in living in the moment, Ginsberg’s photography tends to produce—at least for this writer—an aching nostalgia for a fast and loose New York whose marginal neighborhoods were not yet gentrified. Despite immortalizing his pals, Ginsberg cannot be seen as a formalist at all. Instead, he was a literary shutterbug who returned to many images he had of his early years , mostly taken of friends on the Lower East Side, and annotated them with anecdotes and stories whose interest is equal to his photographs. In these wonderful, straightforward snapshots, Ginsberg captures a magical time in New York, where rents in the East Village were remarkably cheap, allowing him to write his declamatory poetry and document writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and major counterculture figures like Dylan and Wavy Gravy. If it is true that a certain Sturm und Drang characterized his milieu, Ginsberg nonetheless had the presence of mind to know that this was indeed a magical moment in American cultural history.
While the images may evoke little in the way of fine art interest, the super-size egos of Ginsberg’s pals make their urban romanticism a way of life. Peter Orlovsky, something of a poet but best known as Ginsberg’s long-term companion, can be seen cavorting naked in the countryside; Burroughs’ cadaverous charisma reminds us that, beyond the romanticism, literature of a serious sort was indeed being written; and a classic image of Jack Kerouac silently mouthing off on the street, in front of a statue of a stature in Tompkins Square Park, indicates that wildness pervaded the tissue of relations among these very gifted and equally rebellious proponents of alternative culture. Ginsberg often gave his inexpensive 35-mm camera to friends so they could capture his remarkable presence; movingly, he comes across in the images of himself as a bit goofy, but also warm-hearted man of unusual intelligence. His milieu is the stuff of legend, much of it so well known that Ginsberg’s handwritten explanation beneath his images can seem slightly redundant; but the poet is resolute in his determination to fix in memory the moments of idiosyncrasy and the pleasures of free love that characterized the Beats.
Beat movement poets Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder are both represented—Corso is seen in a tiny attic room in France and Snyder in Zen monastery gear in Japan. Ginsberg himself poses nude both early and late, with the latter image, taken in a hotel room in late 1991, revealing a pot belly and a slightly quizzical expression. His pictures of the seasons in his building’s back yard, taken through the window in his kitchen are so straightforward as to be esthetically negligible, but demonstrate an awareness of nature in the midst of city life. Even so, the images are important because they have been taken by a master poet and historian, whose literary discipline belies the informality and randomness of a life lived on the boundaries of New York, both geographically and culturally. There is a marvelous picture of Neil Cassady, caught in an embrace with a woman beneath a movie marquee featuring Marlon Brando in The Wild One; Cassady, the model for protagonist Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road, comes across in the photo as the charming rogue he actually was—truth always lies just under the surface in these documentary images. Even Robert Frank, the great photographer of America, makes it into the show. In all, the Beats lived life on the edge, filled with a counterpoint sexuality and glamour that remains genuine, largely because the insights of Ginsberg and his friends were so original and new.