Allen Ginsberg: poet not photographer

by Kim Steele


Contemporary Jewish Museum  ~  May 23 – September 8, 2013


Myself seen by William Burroughs, NYC, East Village


Just across town from the Jewish Museum is the showing of Garry Winogrand, the complete opposite of Allen Ginsberg, he, Allen, is a story-teller, not a photographer.  A documentation of the era and the sensibility.

William Boroughs, Metropolitan Museum, NYC, ‘We went uptown to look’

Jack Kerouac, with Railroad Brakeman’s Rule-book








Strikingly contemporary, these images evoke the….COOL.  Yes, forlorn, but hey who doesn’t want to meet Burrows and Bowles in Tangiers?


The Brakeman’s Rule Book tucked in his side pocket – Jack Kerouac cuts a figure on the fire escape. Imbued with James Dean like moxie, the gang populated Cedar Tavern on University Place near 10th Street.  I lived for nineteen years near-by-BUT not at the right time.  One University was THE hot place to go run by Mickey Ruskin, who owned Max’s Kansas City and had acquired an immense art collection from artists paying their bill with their art…mostly Andy Warhol, when I arrived in New York City.

But this pre-dates the dudes…where is Lawrence Frelinghetti? Duane Michaels’ images, and I have interviewed him, harken to these personal visual sonnets. I find his work too self indulgent for my tastes, and too personal. I could read The Stranger in Seattle for this scattle. The wonderful cursive hand on the print, like Goldberg and Michaels, telling us what we are looking at and more importantly, what it means to them.

Or directing our minds… Beauty lies in the mind of the beholder, or does it?  Kerouac is handsome, Cassady is handsome, but the dialogue that seems incipient in the images is not documentary but their interpretive value. The old joke:  “I’m constantly re-writing my autobiography.” When Ginsberg strives at being a photographer, the triptych  from his Lower East Side apartment, he is miserable.


I sat for Decades, East Side Apt.


Gregory Corso, Paris


Despite the wall text depicting them as ‘snap-shots’ they are far from candid.  There is a formality to the composition and the attitude of the subject that characterizes Ginsberg images, and his portraits are by far the most compelling of the exhibitions.  His devotion to Buddhism informs many of these contemplative images, contributing to the formalism. The camaraderie of the ‘Merry Pranksters’ of the Ken Kesey era (who was joined by one member – Neal Cassady on  a psychedelic excursion across the country with Kesey on board.)  His quote his interest in image making as “recording certain moments in eternity.”


Jack Kerouac wandering, NYC


Ginsberg added the inscriptions below the images in the eighties. His prominence in the literary world came at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955 when he read the infamous poem, “Howl.” (This can be heard in his own voice at the exhibition)

He purchased his Kodak camera in 1953 and shot continuously until Ginsberg ‘abandoned’ photography in 1963. He was encouraged by luminaries in the photo world, Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott to promote his images in the eighties by re-printing them. They have a similar feeling though different approach to Dennis Hopper’s work of the same period, which has gained much notoriety since his death.

What is clear is his love of his companions and the close-knit group they had become since meeting years ago at Columbia University. They are a recording of a very important part of American history, the “BEAT” generation based here in San Francisco but impacted the entire country. Ginsberg had always admired William Burroughs and was inspired by his writings. The gang went to Tangiers to meet Paul Bowles. One poet still lives among us, Lawrence Ferlinghetti who in the 50’s founded the extant store in Bohemian North Beach, City Lights.


Neal Cassady and his love, San Francisco, Market Street

Peace Brother…

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