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Poetry In Allen Ginsberg's Photography

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Allen Ginsberg is best remembered as a poet. In the 1950s and '60s he was the spokesman for a generation of disenchanted misfits who came to be known as the Beats. They were in bars and on rooftops and on the road; they listened to jazz, lost sleep over literature, got in trouble. It was a small and elite band of — mostly — boys, and Ginsberg was at its center.

  • "Jack Kerouac wandering along east 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad ... he's making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om ... Fall 1953, Manhattan."
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    "Jack Kerouac wandering along east 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad ... he's making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om ... Fall 1953, Manhattan."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "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 ship's fantail, smoking what? In New York harbor, circa October 30, 1947."
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    "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 ship's fantail, smoking what? In New York harbor, circa October 30, 1947."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "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 til decades later (as Queer, 1985) Lower East Side Fall 1953."
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    "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 til decades later (as Queer, 1985) Lower East Side Fall 1953."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Myself seen by William Burroughs, Kodak Retina new-bought 2'd hand from Bowery hock-shop, our apartment roof Lower East Side between Avenues B & C, Tompkins Park trees under new antennae. ... Fall 1953."
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    "Myself seen by William Burroughs, Kodak Retina new-bought 2'd hand from Bowery hock-shop, our apartment roof Lower East Side between Avenues B & C, Tompkins Park trees under new antennae. ... Fall 1953."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Gregory Corso, his attic room 9 Rue Git-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." 1956
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    "Gregory Corso, his attic room 9 Rue Git-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." 1956
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Now Jack as I warned you far back as 1945, if you keep going home to live with your 'Memere' you'll find yourself wound tighter and tighter in her apron strings till you're an old man and can't escape... William Seward Burroughs camping as an Andre Gide-ian sophisticate lecturing the earnest Thomas Wolfean All-American youth Jack Kerouac who listens soberly dead-pan ... one evening Fall 1953."
    Hide caption
    "Now Jack as I warned you far back as 1945, if you keep going home to live with your 'Memere' you'll find yourself wound tighter and tighter in her apron strings till you're an old man and can't escape... William Seward Burroughs camping as an Andre Gide-ian sophisticate lecturing the earnest Thomas Wolfean All-American youth Jack Kerouac who listens soberly dead-pan ... one evening Fall 1953."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Rebecca Ginsberg, Buba, wife of Pincus, laundry-man later tobacco-store owner, my paternal grandmother ... Paterson New Jersey April 1953."
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    "Rebecca Ginsberg, Buba, wife of Pincus, laundry-man later tobacco-store owner, my paternal grandmother ... Paterson New Jersey April 1953."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover's eyes, afternoon light in window, cover of just-published Junkie propped in shadow above right shoulder, Japanese kite against Lower East Side hot water flat's old wallpaper. ... New York Fall 1953."
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    "William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover's eyes, afternoon light in window, cover of just-published Junkie propped in shadow above right shoulder, Japanese kite against Lower East Side hot water flat's old wallpaper. ... New York Fall 1953."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Jack Kerouac, railroad brakeman's rule-book in pocket, couch-pillows airing on fire-escape three flights up overlooking backyard clothes-lines south. ... 206 East 7th Street, near Tompkins Park, Manhattan, probably September 1953."
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    "Jack Kerouac, railroad brakeman's rule-book in pocket, couch-pillows airing on fire-escape three flights up overlooking backyard clothes-lines south. ... 206 East 7th Street, near Tompkins Park, Manhattan, probably September 1953."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Peter Orlovsky, 1955"
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    "Peter Orlovsky, 1955"
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Franceso Clemente looking over hand-script album with new poem I'd written out for his Blake-inspired watercolor illuminations, we'd done two books before; entrance corner of his loft overlooking Great Jones Street Manhattan, October 1984. He liked this picture."
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    "Franceso Clemente looking over hand-script album with new poem I'd written out for his Blake-inspired watercolor illuminations, we'd done two books before; entrance corner of his loft overlooking Great Jones Street Manhattan, October 1984. He liked this picture."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "I sat for decades at my morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window, one day recognized my own world the familiar background ... New York City August 18, 1984."
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    "I sat for decades at my morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window, one day recognized my own world the familiar background ... New York City August 18, 1984."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "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 noted when he saw this snapshot." 1991
    Hide caption
    "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 noted when he saw this snapshot." 1991
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
  • "Bob Donlon (Rob Donnelly, Kerouac's Desolation Angels,), Neal Cassady, myself in black corduroy jacket, Bay Area poets' 'Court Painter' Robert La Vigne & poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of his City Lights book shop, Broadway & Columbus Avenue North Beach. ... San Francisco spring 1956."
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    "Bob Donlon (Rob Donnelly, Kerouac's Desolation Angels,), Neal Cassady, myself in black corduroy jacket, Bay Area poets' 'Court Painter' Robert La Vigne & poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of his City Lights book shop, Broadway & Columbus Avenue North Beach. ... San Francisco spring 1956."
    Photos and captions by Allen Ginsberg/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

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But more than a writer, Ginsberg was a bearded, Buddhist, flower-powered Renaissance man. He was a political activist, a connoisseur of soups and, through it all, a photographer. On May 2, the first-ever scholarly exhibition of his photographs opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Photographer Elsa Dorfman met Ginsberg in 1959, when she was a secretary for his publisher, Grove Press.  He "never doubted he would be a great man," she recalls. "And he had the feeling that all his friends were equally genius." Knowing that they’d one day be famous, Ginsberg documented their lives — their travels, late nights and meandering walks.

Allen Ginsberg, 1953 i i

hide captionAllen Ginsberg, 1953, taken by Wililam S. Burroughs

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Allen Ginsberg, 1953

Allen Ginsberg, 1953, taken by Wililam S. Burroughs

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

And he did it all with a second-hand Kodak camera, using nothing more than the instructions on the film packets. They are some of the few photos of the Beat generation in their early years: a pre-Naked Lunch William Burroughs staring sadly at the camera from behind a pile of books; writer Gregory Corso crouching by a window in his Parisian attic; "Neal Cassady," as Ginsberg writes in a caption, "with cigarette young and vigorous age 29 with salesman surveying North Beach used car lot, he needed new wheels."

As it turns out, Ginsberg had a knack for photography. "He was just one of those people, every coupla hundred thousand births, who can do everything," Dorfman explains. He was the most energetic, always-clicking person."

Although Ginsberg put his camera down for a few years, he revisited those early photographs in the 1980s and was inspired not only to begin photographing again — this time a bit more seriously — but also to inscribe his photos with long, poetic captions. He bought a nicer camera, sought the advice of photographer and friend Robert Frank, and slaved over the text that would accompany his images. No two captions are the same — not even on multiple prints of the same image. The writing is neat and meticulous and quirky.

At the exhibition preview, curator Sarah Greenough cited one beneath a photo of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac on a couch. Ginsberg describes Burroughs, "camping as an Andre-Gide-ian sophisticate lecturing the earnest Thomas Wolfean All-American youth Jack Kerouac" on the dangers of continuing to live with his mother. The photos have received attention through the years, but not in a scholarly context. "It’s the contention of this exhibition," says Greenough, "... that they deserve to be far better known."

The exhibition take us through the years: We see a dynamic 1950s beat generation slip into old age. Beards grow, old friends vanish, new ones emerge. Parts of his life were controversial. But in these photos, we mostly see the poetry of Ginsberg’s life, the poetic way in which he saw the world — how an artist crafted that vision into words and photographs.

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