Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg, Grey Art Gallery, New York

Late in life, the poet Allen Ginsberg rediscovered his forgotten love of photography. As a young man in the 1950s, he had bought a $13 Kodak Retina at a pawnshop on the Lower East Side, and pointed it at his coterie of handsome young friends. Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady and various other characters capered on the precipice of fame, performing their lives as a series of attitudes. Here’s Burroughs, aristocratic and opaque, posing beside a sphinx at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here he is again, in a more intimate view, his long body stretched across Ginsberg’s chenille counterpane. And there’s Kerouac on Ginsberg’s fire escape, puffing a cigarette with Brando-like cool, against a gritty brick backdrop criss-crossed by laundry lines.

These mementos of pre-celebrity days open the exhibition Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, and they conjure the group’s bohemian camaraderie. What makes them glow is the gap between the blithe moments when they were taken and the time, decades later, when Ginsberg saw those photographs again.

He mislaid his camera in the early 1960s, bought another, and lost that one too. He stopped taking pictures, and buried his drugstore prints in a Columbia University vault, where they lodged for decades. Then, in 1983, a researcher came across Ginsberg’s cache and asked him to identify the people in the pictures. The sight of his old friends, pinned in the bright moment before alcohol, drugs and age consumed them, propelled the ageing poet into new spasms of creativity. He had the images professionally enlarged and added wistful captions in his loopy scrawl: “William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover’s eyes, afternoon light in window . . . ”

The freshly unearthed photos found their way into galleries, museums and the glossy monograph Allen Ginsberg: Photographs. They also prompted him to take up the camera again. He sought advice from luminaries such as Berenice Abbott and Robert Frank, and returned to the viewfinder with a keener eye. He kept at it until just before his death in 1997.

He did not, however, take the first picture in the show. The year is 1947. The 21-year-old Ginsberg has already had his first encounter with censorship (he was suspended from Columbia University for writing vulgarities in the dust on his dorm room windowsill) and joined the merchant navy. In the photo, he leans against the flagpole on a ship’s deck, dressed in an undershirt and work trousers, with the trace of a sneer in his smile and a butt-end between his fingers (“smoking what?” he wrote much later). He looks like a good boy hoping to get into trouble. Within a few years, he will be arrested while riding in a stolen car and committed to a psychiatric hospital.

We see him again in 1953, sharing a shabby Lower East Side flat – and a bed – with Burroughs, who killed his wife in Mexico but miraculously stayed out of jail. Ginsberg snapped Burroughs on the roof, a lean, wolf-like figure with a corrugated face, shielding his eyes from the sun. Kerouac joined them that summer, and they traipsed through the alleys of lower Manhattan, screaming poetry into the damp night. Kerouac had published his first novel, though hardly anyone had noticed, and he was always either posing or typing. The show’s finest shot grabs him in mid-howl: “He’s making a Dostoyevsky-mad face or Russian basso bebop Om,” Ginsberg explains in the caption.

In 1956, the Beats reconvened in San Francisco, and an irresistible group photo taken outside Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book store City Lights captures their self-image as a gang of literary toughs. The photo enshrines the Beat style – Ginsberg in his black corduroy jacket, Cassady in the form-fitting t-shirt – and conjures the audacity of men who challenged legal, literary and sexual authority. “‘Howl’ first printing hadn’t arrived from England yet (500 copies), we were just hanging around,” Ginsberg reminisces. When “Howl” did come out, the police banned it as “obscene”, arrested the clerk at City Lights for selling it, and inadvertently turned Ginsberg and his buddies into national figures.

Ginsberg celebrated youthful vigour, but he also documented decay with a certain existential relish. You can already see the cost of rebellion in the bloated wreck of Kerouac in 1964, five years before his death. Ginsberg later wrote in the caption: “he looked by then like his late father, red-faced, corpulent W.C. Fields shuddering, with mortal horror.” But the show’s most poignant pairing is two group shots featuring Ginsberg’s lifelong companion Peter Orlovsky. In the first, from 1956, the bare-chested, beautiful young man sits next to his equally Apollonian teenaged brother Lafcadio. The second, taken three decades later, is a gothic group portrait of the virtually indigent Orlovsky family: grizzled, paunchy Peter and vague-looking, sunken-chested Lafcadio with their grim mother and sister.

Beat Memories, which originated at the National Gallery in Washington, is a diverting, if not entirely convincing, show. The self-consciously arty work from Ginsberg’s last years amounts to celebrity memorabilia. Did you remember that Warren Beatty once dated Madonna? Ginsberg caught the couple in his flash, at a party hosted by Francesco Clemente. He took a so-so portrait of Lou Reed and a blurry action shot of Keith Haring drawing on a sidewalk. The senior man of letters was running with the hip crowd.

He was humble enough to acknowledge the limits of his photographic talent. “If you’re famous, you can get away with anything!” he told an interviewer in 1991. “If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have.” Or a big museum retrospective, either.

Until April 6,

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