Tracing the beat legend through the photos of Allen Ginsberg
What should you look for in the photographs of Allen Ginsberg? Annotating storyboards for his poems seem a reasonable hope, even allowing that the poems tend to speak and show for themselves. Or a legend, simply, of self-made legends: the man himself and all his pals, collectively that merry band of literary self-promoters who jolted from the mid-century American margins on heavy doses of their many talents, not least relentless reciprocal name-checking. Here’s where to sort out your Burroughs and Kerouac and Cassady and Corso and Orlovsky and Leary et al.—and to confirm that when Ginsberg wrote, in “Howl,” of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” he meant them.
Take in nearly three dozen of the pictures at once, and you’ve got a tidily abridged little reference on recent American literary history. The Crocker calls it Allen Ginsberg: Beat Generation Photographer, but for all its cozy fellowship, it deserves a nickname, like The Proto-Boho Photo Book.
Now, it isn’t portraiture per se; that’s a formal conceit Ginsberg didn’t fully allow. And because the pictures are more praising than appraising, more grasping than examining, scrutiny won’t seem like the right way in. You’ll feel silly poring for too long. Instead: Down them, like another kind of shot, and let them soak in.
Anyway, they’ll seem familiar even if you haven’t seen them before. (By now, “Kerouac on the fire escape” must be the name of a dozen dorm-band anthems every year.) These images, caught on the fly, developed in drug stores and archived for a time under the poet’s bed, bear more genetic similarity to the affectionate snaps piling up in your digital camera than to trite and typical curator-approved artifacts; they present themselves as if obliged only to adore their subjects.And what a highly compatible collection of souls the subjects seem to be, these golden boys of a golden age, so casually embroiled in the clubby gallantry of shaking free and getting famous. Cameras tend to show up in this set of insouciant compositions, which includes at least one photograph of Ginsberg being photographed. Yes, he had more than a private album in mind. What you’ve got here is a DIY glamour factory. The shared mood is affected, but not pretended, and that unmediated sincerity is disarming.
It shows, too, in Ginsberg’s commentary, scrawled beneath some prints in his own hand. It’s a way of tagging specimens—the “sunglassed” Corso, the “handsome mysterious haired” Orlovsky, the “slightly zonked” Burroughs—as raw poetic material. And, say what you will, it’s often a hell of a lot more entertaining than the usual mind-numbing museum-wall placard copy. Here, from a pair of shots printed together, is one memorandum in its entirety: “Timothy Leary psychedelic research pioneer and Neal Cassady first meeting at Millbrook N.Y. in Ken Kesey-Merry Pranksters’ ‘Further’ Bus which Neal’d driven Crosscountry S.F. to N.Y. via Texas before Fall 1964 presidentiad, with “A vote For Goldwater is a Vote for Fun” logo painted in large across bus side, L.S.D. Cool-aid pitcher in icebox. Neal scratching amphetamine itch in his driver’s palm.”
Note that compounded, uppercased “Crosscountry,” for added immediacy, or the throwback of that “icebox,” gleefully corrupted, he confides, with the bright newness of hallucinogenic soft drinks. But with that progressive push comes some foreboding: Who would hang up on Cassady’s “amphetamine itch” had Ginsberg not directed attention to it?
Evidently these images were exposed only moments apart. As recorded human impulses, magnified through a psychedelic swirl in the curve of light along the bus’s ceiling, they’re striking. But something happens between the exposures, too: a turning down and away of the men’s faces, a change in tone. They read like before-and-after photos, chronicling just the sort of decisive but ineffable emotional events that poets tend to notice.Before-and-after is a series-wide theme. Take that candid shot of Herbert Huncke strung out in a hotel room. Huncke was the coiner of “beat,” who went on to say that what he meant by it was beaten, exhausted. Here, he has seen better days. “He fixed in that sink,” Ginsberg’s cauterizing caption says.
As vigorously as this collection’s early images make a promise on behalf of beat, so the later ones map the lifestyle’s perils, its true disappointments. The later pictures show people bloated and losing their minds and falling apart. They certify innocence exchanged for experience and correspond to the later lines of “Howl”: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”
Together, the pictures help you recognize that it isn’t the men’s alluring leisure you yearn for. It’s the creative dedication. Ginsberg used photography to abet fame, yes, but also to hone his noticing skills and to limn the cycle of before-and-after that goes on between the beatific and the beaten.