Consider “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” the new photographic exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.
Of course, Ginsberg, the renowned, iconographic, legendary poet laureate of the beat generation and maybe the rock generation that followed, took the photos. Give him credit.
But let’s also give a serious shout-out to Sarah Greenough, the senior curator and head of the department of photography at the National Gallery.
Something about these photos — a mix of snapshots writ large, and later more formal photographs — inspired Greenough. In the end she constructed a work of art out of the 80 photographs on display, a work that’s part biography, part social and literary history and for some viewers, part nostalgic road trip. In an exhibition about poets, full of portraits of poets, she’s managed to come up with a photographic poem very much resembling some of the works of the poets and writers on the wall.
It’s fair to say that the photographs that Ginsberg made aren’t necessarily self-conscious examples of photography as art, and, at least initially, weren’t intended to be. The initial batch of photos were made with a quick-and-easy Kodak, and they allowed the great mad-as-a-fox poet to record a generation of his literary pals, boon companions, rivals, and sometimes lovers who collectively came to be known as the Beats, a word and description that escaped their loose grasp and jumped right out into the American culture at large.
The bulk of the photos are at heart snapshots, quite often made large and dramatic through print, but with all the impetuousness of the moment intact, every one of the mostly men portrayed seem as alive as the moment they were captured, notably Ginsberg himself, not shy about cavorting, doing a naked cartwheel.
The best of the photos are about the Beat arrivals, the moments in time when they became a group, jostling against each other in their travels, exchanging words, sharing their poems, their books, their bodies, their nights and days on the road or on the coasts in New York and San Francisco.
You know who we’re talking about here: Ginsberg, whose masterpiece “Howl” was a spit into the ozone, a regular angry lament against American conformity; Jack Kerouac, the handsome, sullen prince of the road, restless, nervous, who burst on the scene with these words: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up,” the first line of “On the Road”; William Burroughs, the dangerous, lean, mean gun-toting author of “The Naked Lunch”; Neal Cassady, everybody’s favorite daydream and catnip of inspiration.
All of them are here on the wall in a visual flashback to the immediate underbelly of the 1950s, Eisenhower’s decade of normalcy, suburban and small-town morality, a state of the nation which the Beats crashed like escapees from a lunatic asylum. The status quo responded with scorn and fear, but their offspring smelled a whiff of undeniably appealing strange music and noise. They were reflected to some degree in the wild improvisational riffs of Charley Parker, black blues, James Dean and Marlon Brando.
Those photographs from the 1950s are so kinetic — especially in their original snapshot form — that they have a quality that is both holy and holographic: look at Cassidy standing with his girlfriend in front of a Times Square movie marquee, advertising “The Wild One,” “Stranger with a Gun” and “Tarzan the Ape Man.”
These 1950s pictures are a passing parade, and Greenough, in the arrangement of the exhibition and in the descriptive words of her essay in the accompanying catalogue, has set the parade in motion. Fittingly, she quotes Walt Whitman: “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Ginsberg used the line as an epigraph for “Howl” in 1956.
At heart, Ginsberg, as well as the others, were poets and prose writers of personal experience and reaction, they were every bit as embracing or reactive as everything in “Leaves of Grass.”
While some of the Beats died young or faded, Ginsberg found his way, like a prophet, into the next generation, where he became a sage to Bob Dylan’s followers. It was then that he re-discovered his pictures like an old aunt in the attic, it was then he protested the war in Vietnam, chanted “ohm” at every turn and gave poetry readings the likes of which no one had heard before — very much like a scruffy, scatological Pan. It was meeting Robert Frank, another roadie of the visual sort, that made him started taking photographs again, although photos that are closer to art, less joyful, but more studied: Dylan, Frank and his son Paul, his dying uncle Abe, the pop artist Larry Rivers, Corso and dangerous photos of Burroughs.
For anyone who’s had any contact with that world in their youth, this is like a whiff of dry, non-medicinal marijuana, none more than the picture of the poets in their mid-youth standing arms linked in front of the City of Lights bookshop in San Francisco, five guys hanging out — including the owner Lawrence (“Coney Island of the Mind”) Ferlinghetti, a poet still railing.