The photographs of Allen Ginsberg recently were on display at the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco. Walking through the museum is like going on a jaunt through Beat History. A spritely Jack Kerouac followed by the drunk. A youthful William Burroughs, and the junky with withered skin. Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Robert La Vigne, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and of course, Ginsberg himself throughout the years.
Ginsberg recorded the world primarily through notebooks which he often transformed into poetry. The photographs do not display the depths of the poems for they are perfect recordings of the human eye. Still, their compositions are excellent, and Ginsberg’s somewhat sloppy handwriting provides captions underneath.
When perusing images of Beat Lore, Ginsberg’s photography is usually present. Many famous photographs decorate the museum like one of Kerouac smoking a cigarette with his brakeman’s railroad handbook visible in his jacket pocket, Burroughs lecturing Kerouac on a couch, and a portrait of Ginsberg taken by Burroughs on a roof. Others were encouraged to use the camera so that photographs of Ginsberg survive.
There are also lesser known, but hilarious photographs like one of partner Peter Orlovsky doing a handstand naked, and another of Orlovsky’s unique family. We also see Ginsberg’s family, Neal Cassady cheesing in front of a movie theater with his latest dame, and literary legends in their latter years as Ginsberg did not put the camera away.
One of the most artistic photographs is a portrait of William Burroughs in the shadows. The blinds are at just the right angle for the sun so that a slab of darkness covers the majority of the right side of his face; yet just enough light remains for Burroughs to be clearly seen. One can only wonder what is going on in his wild mind.
The photographs are significant because the poetry is revolutionary, which cycles on speakers throughout the display. “Howl,” “Kaddish,” “A Supermarket in California,” and other classics can be heard in Ginsberg’s voice while quietly stepping from wall to wall. City Lights Pocket Poems and other Beat texts are available for reading on two tables.
Allen Ginsberg is the rightful heir to Walt Whitman and arguably the most important poet of the 20th century. He ignited a revolution by insisting with unwavering determination that his friends, Kerouac, Burroughs and others be published with him in the canon.
Yes I am that worm soul under
the heel of the daemon horses
I am that man trembling to die
in vomit & trance in bamboo
eternities belly ripped by
red hands of courteous
chinamen kids—Come sweetly
now back to my Self as I was—
Allen Ginsberg, excerpt from “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express”
Ginsberg’s photographs have found a place in eternity, alongside the poems. They provide more mind-breaths of Ginsberg’s charged vision. From vibrant youth to wise old age, they are sprinkled throughout the universe.