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"Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg" on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
Allen Ginsberg, We went uptown to look at Mayan Egyptian wing William Burroughs with a brother Sphinx…, 1953. Gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997, 8 ¾ x 9 ⅞ in. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis. Copyright © 2013 The Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved. Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg. On view May 23–September 8, 2012. Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- 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 record “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. Inspired by his earlier work, he also began to photograph again, recording longtime friends and new acquaintances.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg includes over eighty photographs by the renowned poet that tenderly capture the young writers and rebels who would define the Beat Generation.

“The Museum is thrilled to host this exhibition of Ginsberg’s photographs many of which were taken in San Francisco,” says Colleen Stockmann, Assistant Curator. “The Beat Generation is such a vibrant part of our city’s history, and we are really pleased to be partnering with City Lights and the Queer Cultural Center on various events throughout the run of the exhibition to breathe new life into its legacy.”

The same approaches that inform Ginsberg’s poetry—intense observation of the world, deep appreciation for the beauty of the vernacular, faith in intuitive expression—also permeate his photographs. When Ginsberg first began to take photographs in the 1950s, he, like countless other amateurs, had his film developed and printed at local drugstores. A selection of these “drugstore prints” is presented at the beginning of the show.

A number of early photographs—such as Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street… (1953) and Bob Donlon (Rob Donnelly, Kerouac’s ‘Desolation Angels’), Neal Cassady, myself in black corduroy jacket… (1956)—capture the tender, playful quality of Ginsberg’s close-knit group of friends. He later observed that his photographs were like “looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world.” Ginsberg viewed his snapshots as casual and unselfconscious “keepsakes,” which he made without the intention of showing them to anyone outside his circle of friends. Other works, such as The first shopping cart street prophet I’d directly noticed… (1953) and Rebecca Ginsberg… (1953), reveal his self-taught visual skills.

The second section of the exhibition presents Ginsberg’s later photographs, taken from the early 1980s until his death. These images were immediately embraced by the art world, and works such as Publisher-hero Barney Rosset… (1991) and Lita Hornick in her dining room… (1995) were exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. Prestigious institutions acquired Ginsberg’s photographs for their permanent collections, and two books were published. Ginsberg was not simply a casual bystander; he actively promoted his photography.

Revisiting his early works in the 1980s, Ginsberg added extensive inscriptions beneath each image, describing both his relationship with the subject and his memories of their times together. Ginsberg’s scrawling, handwritten captions establish a direct link between the artist and his audience, immersing us in the writer’s process and setting a deeply personal tone. The descriptions often reflect on the passage of time and the collision between past and present, making the photographs both records and recollections of an era.

“Ginsberg had the remarkable ability to focus on the present,” notes Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator and head of the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art. “Although his later prints are less exuberant than his earlier photographs, they speak of the acceptance and insight of a quiet yet continual celebration of life.”

Most of the later works were recently donated to the National Gallery by Gary S. Davis; others are lent from Mr. Davis’ personal collection and by the Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997)
Born and raised in New Jersey, Allen Ginsberg moved to New York City in 1943 to begin undergraduate study at Columbia University. There he met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, who would become leading Beat figures. In 1953, Ginsberg purchased a small, secondhand Kodak camera and began photographing himself and his friends in New York, San Francisco, and on his travels around the world. At the same time, he was developing his poetic voice. In 1955 he read his provocative and now-famous poem “Howl” to a cheering audience at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Both Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Ginsberg’s “Howl” were immediately hailed as captivating if challenging expressions of new voices and new visions for American literature. Celebrating personal freedom, sexual openness, and spontaneity, the two writers came to be seen as the embodiment of a younger generation—the Beats—who rejected middle-class American values and aspirations, and decried materialism and conformity.

Ginsberg abandoned photography in 1963, concentrating instead on his literary career. He wrote and published deeply moving and highly influential poetry for the rest of his life, including Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960 (1961) and The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1972), which was awarded a National Book Award in 1974. Using his fame to advance social causes, he also continued to capture public attention as an outspoken opponent to the Vietnam War and American militarism, and as a champion of free speech, gay rights, and oppressed people around the world.

In 1983 Ginsberg became increasingly interested in ensuring and perpetuating his legacy. Inspired by the discovery of his old negatives and encouraged by photographers Berenice Abbott and Robert Frank, he reprinted many early photographs and took new portraits of friends and acquaintances, such as the musician Bob Dylan (Bob Dylan, Tompkins Square Park… [1990]) and the painter Francesco Clemente (Francesco Clemente looking over hand-script album… [1984]).

With their casual style, immediacy, emphatic autobiographical focus, and peculiar combination of past visions and present voice, Ginsberg’s photographs resonate with audiences. Although these photographs form one of the most revealing records of the counterculture Beat generation from the 1950s through the 1990s—tracing its journey from youth to old age—Ginsberg’s pictures are far more than historical documents. Drawing on the most common form of photograph, the snapshot, he created spontaneous, uninhibited pictures of ordinary events to celebrate and preserve what he called “the sacredness of the moment.”

The exhibition includes a listening area that provides visitors an opportunity to hear Ginsberg in his own voice. Audio excerpts include 1950s recordings of “Howl” and “Kaddish”, a poem written for his mother and drawing on notions of traditional Jewish mourning.

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Presenting partnership for this exhibition is provided by an anonymous donor. Supporting sponsorship has been provided by The Jim Joseph Foundation, BNY Mellon, and Sheila Sosnow and Richard Nagler.

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