Poet, mystic, buddhist, teacher, and spokesman for the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg also photographed his friends and lovers over the years. He made albums of these photos, with elaborate hand-written captions. Ginsberg's "photographic memoir of the Beat era" captures intimate moments with many of the leading writers, poets and artists who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.
A selection of more than 70 of these annotated photos was published by Chronicle Books in 1993, as Snapshot Poetics. Those same photos are now part of a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Ginsberg spoke about his photographs, and his ideas about photography, while he was preparing the book:
My picture taking goes back to 1945 or 1946, when I got my own box camera and took a bunch of pictures with Burroughs, his wife Joan, Kerouac and Hal Chase…I took a couple photos of Herbert Hunke and Burroughs on their Texas marijuana farm…
But I really didn’t get into picture taking until 1953, when I went to a 3rd Avenue second-hand store and bought a Kodak Retina for thirteen dollars and began taking several rolls of film at a time… It was small, it fit into my breast pocket, and it didn’t seem like such a big deal… We all enjoyed fooling around… The photo sessions never lasted more than five or ten minutes, though. We did them while we were in the middle of other matters, like writing or just gossiping… The pictures I took in Tangier in ’57 and ’61 still have the character of occasional and intermittent epiphanies for me.
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.
I’m afraid that I’m more into continuous reportage now. As a matter of habit I carry a camera where I used to carry a notebook. I’m finding that I write less and less in my notebooks now – I do my sketching and observing with the camera instead. It’s beginning to displace writing a bit – not the poetry, though, but the peripatetic notes I used to take. It’s a little bit wrong, no doubt about it, because I’m not as good a photographer as I am a writer, and should stick to my original trade – but you see, as Robert Frank says, photography is an art for lazy people, and he’s right.
When I saw Berenice Abbot’s photographs, I liked the idea that you could go back in time, say, July 16, 1936, Herald Square – it was like going back in a time machine. I may even be in that photograph, walking to Gimbel’s with my mother through the crowds that I remember so vividly. At sixty years old, I could suddenly see the world again as it was when I was ten. This revelation added to my awareness of the special powers of photography.
Ginsberg became friends with Berenice Abbot, and she told him: “Don’t be a shutterbug, young man. All these photographers with their 35 millimeter cameras go snap, snap, snap and can’t get anything that way… You have to set something up and use a large negative so that you can get the detail.” He related that idea to what the Buddhists call “panoramic experience” and what Blake called “minute particulars”.
Curator Sarah Greenough writes: "The same ideas that inform his poetry—an intense observation of the world, a deep appreciation of the beauty of the vernacular, a celebration of the sacredness of the present, and a faith in intuitive expression—also permeate his photography."
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, together with Robert Frank, Ginsberg developed a course that they taught together, called Photographic Poetics. Ginsberg talked about that teaching:
I traced the origins of the imagistic ground of poetry that I had learned from Williams and its relation to the photographic practice. For instance, take William’s poem The Red Wheelbarrow:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
It’s just like a photo.
In a sense, writing poems and taking pictures have been two discrete but very closely related activities. What I teach my poetry students in terms of snapshot poetics these days might also serve photography students, as you may see from the slogans I put down for my class at Naropa Institute in Boulder:
includes eternal perceptions.
Observe what’s vivid.
Notice what you notice.
Catch yourself thinking.
Vividness is self-selecting.
First thought, best thought.
Subject is known by what she sees.
Others can measure their vision by what we see.
Candor ends paranoia.
All quotes by Allen Ginsberg are included in the great photo book published by Chronicle Books in 1993, Snapshot Poetics.
And here is info about the exhibition:
The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg
May 2–September 6, 2010
National Gallery of Art,
FeatureBeat MemoriesPoet, mystic, and spokesman for the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg also photographed his friends and lovers over the years. He made albums of these photos, with elaborate hand-written captions.View Images
Poet, mystic, and spokesman for the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg also photographed his friends and lovers over the years. He made albums of these photos, with elaborate hand-written captions.View Images
Poet, mystic, and spokesman for the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg also photographed his friends and lovers over the years. He made albums of these photos, with elaborate hand-written captions.
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 ships fantail, smoking what? In New York harbor, circa October 30, 1947 © Allen Ginsberg
Jack Kerouac, railroad brakemans rule-book in pocket, couch-pillows airing on fire escape three flights up overlooking backyard clotheslines South. Hed already published "The Town The City", completed a half-dozen unprinted classic volumes including, "On the Road", "Visions of Cody", "Doctor Sax", early books of Blues and Dreams, had begun "The Subterraneans'" adventurous love affair with Aileen Lee, Mardou Fox . Aileen typed for W. S. Burroughs then in resistance editing "Yage Letters" "Queer" mss., unpublishable that decade, censorship ruled. I scribed The Green Automobile, Gregory Corso visited that season, 206 East 7th Street near Tompkins Park, Manhattan, Probably September 1953. © Allen Ginsberg
Myself seen by William Burroughs, Kodak Retina new. Bought 2d hand from Bowery hock-shop, our apartment roof Lower East Side between Avenueas B, Tompkins Park trees under new autumnal, Alan Ansen, Gregory Corso Jack Kerouac visited, Jacks "The Subterraneans" records much of the scene, Burroughs I edited letter-manuscripts hed sent from Mexico South America, Aileen Lee (Mardou Fox of "The Subterraneans") typed final drafts. Neighborhood was heavily Polish and Ukranian, some artists, junkies, medical students, cheap restaurants on corner 7th 4, rent was only 1/4 of my monthly $120 wage as newspaper copyboy. Time of The Green Automobile poem to Cassady, Fall 1953. © Allen Ginsberg
I sat for decades at morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window, one day recognized my own world the familiar backyard, a giant wet brick-walled under-sea 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 focusd on the raindrops along the clothesline. Things are symbols of themselves, said Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. New York City August 18, 1984. © Allen Ginsberg
William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lovers eyes, afternoon light in window, cover of just published "Junkie" propped in shadow above right shoulder, Japanese kite against Lower East Side hot water flats old wallpaper. Hed come up from South America Mexico to stay with me editing "Yage Letters" "Queer" maunscripts. New York Fall 1953. © Allen Ginsberg
Neal Cassady and his love of that year the star-cross'd Natalie Jackson conscious of their roles in Market Street Eternity: Cassady had been prototype for Jack Kerouacs 1950 "On The Road" saga hero Dean Moriarty, as later in 1960s hed taken the drivers wheel of Ken Keseys psychedelic-era day-glo painted Merry Prankster Cross-country bus Further. Neals illuminated American automobile bright-lit signs of our own literary imaginations before movies were made imitating his charm. Thats why we stopped under the marquee to fix the passing hand on the watch, San Francisco, maybe March 1955 © Allen Ginsberg
Bob Donlon (Rob Donelly, Kerouacs "Desolation Angels",) Neal Cassady, myself in black corderoy 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 teeshirt, "Howl" first printing hadnt arrived from England yet (500 copies), we were just hanging around, Peter Orlovsky stepped back off curb snapped shot, San Francisco spring 1956. © Allen Ginsberg
Rebecca Ginsberg, Buba, wife of Pincus, laundry-man later tobacco-store owner, my paternal grandmother (b. Russia near Karminetz Podolska May 1869 d. July 1962) visiting her elder son Louis house, here 84 years old at table for Seder preparation. Shed attended Adult Education English Classes in Newark 14 years earlier, written patriotic essay declaring God Blast America! younger sons Uncle Abe daughters Aunt Rose, Clara H.S. teacher Hannah were her children. Dining room 428 East 34th Street, Paterson New Jersey April 1953. © Allen Ginsberg
William Burroughs on roof of apartment house East Seventh Street where I had a flat, we were lovers those months, editing his letters into books not published till decades later (as "Queer", 1985.) Lower East Side Fall 1953. © Allen Ginsberg
We went up to look at Mayan Codices at Museum of Natural History Metropolitan Museum of Art to view Carlo Crivellis green-hued Christ-face with crown of thorns stuck symmetric in his skull - here Egyptian wing William Burroughs with a brother Sphinx, Fall 1953 Manhattan. © Allen Ginsberg
Larry Rivers with his portrait of Poet John Ashberys 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. © Allen Ginsberg
William Burroughs, 11pm late March 1985, being driven home 222 Bowery. Experimenting with hand held half-second rolliflex exposure camera upside down box view, Burroughs phantom in street light stop sign illumination fuzzy, couldnt move back further to focus sharper, I was in rear seat. © Allen Ginsberg
Jack Kerouac the last time he visited my apartment 704 East 5th Street N.Y.C., he looked by then like his late father, red-faced corpulent W. C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror, grimacing on D.M.T. Id brought back from visiting Timothy Leary at Millbrook Psychedelic Community, Fall 1964. © Allen Ginsberg
W. S. Burroughs at rest in the side-yard 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. © Allen Ginsberg
Gregory Corso, his attic room 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur, wooden angel hung from wall right, window looked on courtyard and across Seine half-block away to spires of St. Chapelle on Ile St. Louis Gregorys "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 Corsos 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. Id begun Kaddish litany, Peter his First Poem. © Allen Ginsberg
Publisher-hero Barney Rossett whose Grove Press legal battles liberated U.S. literature film at Tower Books N.Y. symposium on new censorship politics, June 20, 1991. © Allen Ginsberg
Peter Orlovsky, 1955 © Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg, 1955 © Allen Ginsberg
Bill Burroughs, 1953 © Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg, 1953 © Allen Ginsberg
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