Beat Memories

The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg

National Gallery of Art
May 2 to September 16, 2010

"I do my sketching and observing with the camera."
Allen Ginsberg, 1993

One of the most visionary writers of his generation and author of the celebrated poem Howl, Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) was also a photographer. From 1953 until 1963 he made numerous, often exuberant portraits of himself and his friends, including the Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac. Eager to capture "certain moments in eternity," as he wrote, he kept his camera by his side when he was at home or traveling around the world. For years Ginsberg's photographs languished among his papers. When he finally rediscovered them in the 1980s, he reprinted them, adding handwritten inscriptions (transcribed for each work in this slide show). Inspired by his earlier work, he also began to photograph again, recording longtime friends and new acquaintances.

Ginsberg's photographs form a vivid portrait of the Beat Generation, a term that came to describe a group of young people who rebelled against the materialism and conformity of middle-class America and embraced a lifestyle that promoted freedom, sexual openness, spontaneity, and speed. Yet Ginsberg's photographs are far more than historical documents. The same qualities that governed his poetry—intense observation of the world, deep appreciation for the beauty of the vernacular, and faith in intuitive expression—also permeate his photographs. Drawing on the most common form of photography, the snapshot, he created spontaneous, uninhibited pictures of ordinary events to celebrate and preserve what he called "the sacredness of the moment." With their captions, which often reflect on the passage of time, Ginsberg's photographs are both records and recollections of an era.

Photographs by Allen Ginsberg © 2010 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are from the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis.

This exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art.
It is made possible through the generous support of the Trellis Fund.
Additional support is provided by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Image:
  • Myself seen by William Burroughs, Kodak Retina new-bought 2'd hand from Bowery hock-shop, our apartment roof Lower East Side between Avenues B & C, Tompkins Park trees under new antennae. Alan Ansen, Gregory Corso & Jack Kerouac visited, Jack's The Subterraneans records much of the scene, Burroughs & I edited letter-manuscripts he'd sent from Mexico & South America, Alene Lee ("Mardou Fox" of The Subterraneans) typed final drafts. Neighborhood was heavily Polish & Ukranian, some artists, junkies, medical students, cheap restaurants like "Leshkos" corner 7th & A, rent was only ¼ of my monthly $120 wage as newspaper copyboy. Time of "The Green Automobile" poem to Cassady, Fall 1953.
  • 1953
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 28.6 x 43.8 cm (11 1/4 x 17 1/4 in)
  • 1
Image:
  • Allen Ginsberg, utility man S.S. John Blair just back from Galveston-Dakar doldrums trip, I handed my camera to the radio-man on the ship's fantail, smoking what? In New York harbor, circa October 30, 1947.
  • 1947
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 27.6 x 18.8 cm (10 7/8 x 7 3/8 in)
  • 2
Image:
  • We went uptown to look at Mayan Codices at Museum of Natural History & Metropolitan Museum of Art to view Carlo Crivelli's greenhued Christ-face with crown of thorns stuck symmetric in his skull—here Egyptian wing William Burroughs with a brother Sphinx, Fall 1953 Manhattan.
  • 1953
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 22.3 x 25.1 cm (8 3/4 x 9 7/8 in)
  • 3
Image:
  • Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel "Sunset" Cox, "The Letter-Carrier's Friend" in Tompkins Square toward corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side; he's making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om, first walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pockets, Fall 1953, Manhattan.
  • 1953
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 29.2 x 45.1 cm (11 1/2 x 17 3/4 in)
  • 4
Image:
  • Neal Cassady and his love of that year the star-cross'd Natalie Jackson conscious of their rôles in Market Street Eternity: Cassady had been prototype for Jack Kerouac's 1950 On the Road saga hero Dean Moriarty, as later in 1960's he'd taken the driver's wheel of Ken Kesey's psychedelic-era day-glo painted Merry Prankster crosscountry bus "Further." Neal's illuminated American automobile mania, "unspeakably enthusiastic" friendship & erotic energy had already written his name in brightlit signs of our literary imaginations before movies were made imitating his charm. That's why we stopped under the marquee to fix the passing hand on the watch, San Francisco, maybe March 1955.
  • 1955
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 24.9 x 38 cm (9 7/8 x 14 7/8 in)
  • 5
Image:
  • Bob Donlon (Rob Donnelly, Kerouac's Desolation Angels), Neal Cassady, myself in black corduroy jacket, Bay Area poets' "Court Painter" Robert La Vigne & poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of his City Lights Books shop, Broadway & Columbus Avenue North Beach. Donlon worked seasonally as Las Vegas waiter & oft drank with Jack K., Neal looks good in tee shirt, Howl first printing hadn't arrived from England yet (500 copies), we were just hanging around, Peter Orlovsky stepped back off curb & snapped shot, San Francisco spring 1956.
  • 1956
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 28.3 x 42.6 cm (11 1/8 x 16 3/4 in)
  • 6
Image:
  • Gregory Corso, his attic room 9 Rue Gît-le-Coeur, wooden angel hung from wall right, window looked on courtyard and across Seine halfblock away to spires of St. Chapelle on Ile St. Louis. Gregory's Gasoline was ready at City Lights, in attic he prepared "Marriage," "Power," "Army," "Police," "Hair" and "Bomb" for Happy Birthday of Death book. Henri Michaux visited, liked Corso's "mad children of soda-caps" phrasing. Burroughs came from Tangier to live one flight below, shaping Naked Lunch manuscript, Peter Orlovsky and I had window on street two flights downstairs, room with two-burner gas stove, we ate together often, rent $30 a month. I'd begun Kaddish litany, Peter his "Frist Poem."
  • 1957
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 35.6 x 35.5 cm (14 x 14 in)
  • 7
Image:
  • Peter Orlovsky at James Joyce's grave, Zurich Switzerland December 1980,
    we climbed up the cemetery and found Joyce's statue snowcovered, brushed it
    off his head.
  • 1980
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 19 x 28.5 cm (7 1/2 x 11 1/4 in)
  • Collection of Gary S. Davis
  • 8
Image:
  • Larry Rivers with his portrait of poet John Ashbery's poem "Pyrography" (1977), his studio Southhampton L. I. July 7, 1985. He worked out with weightlift instructor too that day, as well as new styrofoam 3-D painting.
  • 1985
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1985–1997
  • image: 28.2 x 19.9 cm (11 1/8 x 7 7/8 in)
  • 9
Image:
  • Francesco Clemente looking over hand-script album with new poem I'd written out for his Blake-inspired watercolor illuminations, we'd done two books before; entrance corner of his loft overlooking Great Jones Street Manhattan, October 1984. He liked this picture.
  • 1984
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 40.4 x 27 cm (15 7/8 x 10 5/8 in)
  • 10
Image:
  • W. S. Burroughs at rest in the sideyard of his house looking at the sky, empty timeless Lawrence Kansas May 28, 1991. But "the car dates it" he noticed when he saw this snapshot.
  • 1991
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1991–1997
  • image: 22.2 x 33 cm (8 3/4 x 13 in)
  • 11
Image:
  • I sat for decades at morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window, one day recognized my own world the familiar background, a giant wet brick-walled undersea Atlantis garden, waving ailanthus ("stinkweed") "Trees of Heaven," with chimney pots along Avenue A topped by Stuyvesant Town apartments' upper floors two blocks distant on 14th Street, I focus'd on the raindrops along the clothesline. "Things are symbols of themselves," said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. New York City August 18, 1984
  • 1984
  • gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997
  • image: 42 x 28 cm (16 1/2 x 11 in)
  • 12