One of the most visionary writers of his generation,Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) was also a photographer. He began photographing actively in New York City in 1953, having his film developed and printed at a drugstore near his apartment on the Lower East Side. After looking through the snapshots and perhaps giving a few to friends, he tossed them to the back of a drawer or the bottom of a closet. Ginsberg later said that these photographs were “meant more for a public in heaven than one here on earth—and that’s why they’re charming.” Between 1953 and 1963 he took numerous, often exuberant portraits of himself and his close-knit group of friends—such as Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac. He viewed these prints as casual and unselfconscious “keepsakes” that recorded “certain moments in eternity,” and he did not initially exhibit them.
At the same time, Ginsberg was honing his poetic voice: He first read Howl, his provocative and now-famous poem, to a cheering audience at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955; with Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957), it was soon hailed as a new vision for American literature. Celebrating personal freedom, sexual openness, and spontaneity, Ginsberg and Kerouac were viewed as embodying a younger generation—the Beats—who rejected middle-class values and aspirations, and decried materialism and conformity. After 1963, Ginsberg abandoned photography and concentrated on his literary career. He wrote and published the moving and highly influential Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–60 (1961) and The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1972), which won a National Book Award in 1974. Using his fame to advance social causes, Ginsberg became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and a champion of free speech, gay rights, and oppressed people around the world.
Ginsberg’s early photographs languished among his papers until the early 1980s, when he rediscovered his old negatives. Looking through them, he became entranced with their poignancy—they were like “looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world,” he noted. With encouragement from renowned photographers Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott, he had many of his earlier photographs reprinted in a larger format and began to make new ones, adding handwritten inscriptions describing his relationships with the subjects and his memories of their times together. The captions immerse us in Ginsberg’s writing process. With their casual style, immediacy, autobiographical focus, and striking combination of past visions and present voice, his photographic works comprise a revealing record of the Beat generation, tracing its evolution from youth to old age. Employing the most common form of photograph—the snapshot—Ginsberg created spontaneous, uninhibited pictures of ordinary events to celebrate and preserve what he called “the sacredness of the moment.”
Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg is organized by the National Gallery of Art,Washington, and curated by Sarah Greenough. It is made possible through the generous supportof the Trellis Fund. Additional support is provided by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. Funding for the presentation at the Grey Art Gallery is provided by the Howard Greenberg Gallery; the Grey’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.