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"Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs" on view at The Photographers' Gallery
Unknown Photographer, Burroughs in the Hotel Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangier. Scan from negative, 5.6 x 5.8 cm© Estate of William S. Burroughs. Courtesy of the William S. Burroughs Estate.

LONDON.- William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was an influential American novelist, essayist and artist, and a cult icon. Coinciding with the centenary of Burroughs’ birth, Taking shots is the first major exhibition worldwide to focus on his large photographic oeuvre, offering new and important insights into his artistic and creative processes.

The exhibition features over a 100 works, mainly black and white, many rarely or never before seen. These include vintage photographs, collages and assemblages alongside related ephemera such as postcards, magazine and book covers and adverts used in Burroughs’ pieces. Also included in the space is Towers Open Fire (1963), a short experimental film by Antony Balch influenced by Burroughs’ theories of the image. The title, Taking Shots, refers to photography but also to Burroughs’ well-known heroin addiction and his obsession with firearms.

The photographs exhibited were mainly taken between the early 1950s and 70s in locations including London, Paris, New York and Tangier. Burroughs’ images can be loosely organised into categories including self-portraits, street scenes, intimate domestic interiors, assemblages, construction sites, and portraits of fellow writers and artists, like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Brion Gysin, and friends and lovers.

His photographs have hitherto mainly been used to illustrate critical approaches to his work. Taking Shots repositions them as integral to an understanding of the historical and formal characteristics and concerns of Burroughs’ wider oeuvre. Burroughs used photography partly as a research tool, but also as a medium of aesthetic experimentation. Processed cheaply and treated as disposable items, many of his photographs bear markings and scratches, and most are not titled or dated. The fragmented nature of his photographic oeuvre resists a thematic or chronological layout and is reflective of his nomadic lifestyle and state of mind.

Burroughs was fascinated by, what he believed to be, photography’s ability to disrupt the space-time continuum and to expand the viewer’s perception of the physical world. Using the cut-up technique – visuals cut from different works arranged and shuffled to conceive new connections and meanings between images – Burroughs created complex collages. For him these pieces functioned as a form of time travel, ones in which the camera was used to literally cut pieces from the continuum to then be repositioned and disseminated.

In a 1976 interview with J. E. Rivers, Burroughs discussed his use of photographs, noting: [...] I pay a lot of attention to photographs because of characters. I’ll say, ‘Well, that picture looks something like one of my characters’, and I’ll build up a composite picture of what a character looks like. The exhibition examines these links and photography’s role in Burroughs’ wider aesthetic practices.

Taking Shots is curated by Patricia Allmer, Chancellor’s Fellow in Art History at the University of Edinburgh, and John Sears, independent literary critic. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs, co-published by The Photographers’ Gallery and Prestel.

William Seward Burroughs II was born on 5 February 1914 in St. Louis Missouri, USA. Burroughs was a muse and mentor to, and collaborator with, the Beats, and associated with key figures of the 60s exile culture of Tangiers, such as Brion Gysin, and Paul and Jane Bowles. He was an icon of transgression for, and worked with, a wide range of 70s and 80s counter-cultural artists, including David Bowie, Patti Smith, Madonna, Laurie Anderson, John Giorno, Sonic Youth, Bill Laswell, Genesis P. Orridge, and Kurt Cobain. His literary works and innovative practices have influenced subsequent generations of writers including Kathy Acker, Will Self, Irvine Welsh, J G Ballard, and China Miéville. He also associated with L Ron Hubbard, Timothy Leary, and other key figures of alternative culture and the avant-garde. His works, from Junky and Queer onwards, occupy unique positions in 20th century literature, and Naked Lunch, his most famous novel, was the basis for David Cronenberg’s 1991 movie. Burroughs also appeared in several cameos in films like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Decoder (1984). He died in Lawrence, Kansas, on 2 August 1997.

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