New York

Allen Ginsberg

One of Allen Ginsberg’s talents was his ability to learn from his friends. He learned about music and song from Bob Dylan, prose rhythms from Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and photography from Robert Frank. Underlying this gift was an insatiable curiosity, which he lavished on friends and acquaintances for fifty years. His camera was an instrument of this attentiveness—always there, always looking.

This little show included two images from 1953, one from 1976, and nine works from 1985 to 1996. All are black and white portraits, with Ginsberg’s straightforward commentary scrawled below them on the prints. They range from the iconic Jack Kerouac (Heroic Portrait), 1953, which captures Kerouac on the fire escape outside Ginsberg’s apartment on the Lower East Side, his railroad brakeman’s manual sticking out of his pocket, to Self-Portrait on My Seventieth Birthday, June 3, 1996, a hilarious send-up of the poet as fashion plate: “in Borsalino hat and black cashmere-silk scarf from Milan & Dublin[,] storm proof—tweed suit, Oleg Cassini tie from Goodwill, shirt same source.” One of the distinguishing characteristics of the bohemia recorded in these portraits is how resolutely unfashionable it always was.

All of the portraits are character studies. We compare Ginsberg’s weathered face at seventy not only to the unlined, youthful visage in Allen Smiling, 1953, taken by Burroughs (“Bill must’ve said something funny from the floor”), but to Ginsberg’s portrait of his father Louis in 1976. Both father and son look directly into the lens, unflinching and open. And Ginsberg’s written commentaries often provide a sort of script. In Bob Dylan, Tompkins Square Park, May 21, 1990, Dylan stands with his hands in his pockets and a leather coat draped over his shoulders, looking quizzically at the camera. Ginsberg’s caption tells us that ten minutes after this picture was taken, the two were chased out of the park onto Avenue A by irate, bottle-throwing, homeless men who thought Ginsberg was photographing them. We rethink the image of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns sitting in a row of folding chairs when we read that they were attending an induction ceremony at the staid American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1989. Cage and Johns look stoic and blank, but Cunningham turns to the camera with a look of barely contained mirth.

By and large, these are celebrity pictures that show fame in its unposed off hours: Patti Smith holding a Styrofoam cup, waiting for coffee, looking like a kindly elementary-school teacher; Harry Smith exhausted, surrounded by break fast-table detritus; George Condo before his large canvas of the Adoration of St. Lucy; Lita Hornick in her dining room eating aspic, herself apparently about to be swallowed whole by Richard Boseman’s Norseman.

If we compare this family album of the American subculture with Nan Goldin’s, we see how bohemia changed from the ’50s to the ’80s. Goldin is more intent on showing the wounds of love and life; her version is more confessional/cathartic than Beat. But both her work and Ginsberg’s is marked by a certain innocence, an idealism that survives in spite of everything.

David Levi Strauss