Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was primarily known as a great American poet, the figurehead of the Beat Movement. But from the early 1950s to about 1964, Ginsberg regularly used a cheap camera to take snapshots of his now famous pals, including the writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady.  Almost all are affectionate, more or less straightforward portraits made indoors and out.

Allen Ginsberg - Gregory Corso in his attic room, Paris, 1957 - Howard Greenberg Gallery
Gregory Corso in his attic room, Paris, 1957
Allen Ginsberg - William S. Burroughs & Jack Karouac, New York, 1953 - Howard Greenberg Gallery
William S. Burroughs & Jack Karouac, New York, 1953
Allen Ginsberg - Jack Kerouac visiting Allen Ginsberg's apartment, 704 East 5th Street, for the last time, 1964 - Howard Greenberg Gallery
Jack Kerouac visiting Allen Ginsberg’s apartment, 704 East 5th Street, for the last time, 1964
Gelatin silver print; printed later

Many have a subtly playful spirit, like one of the poker-faced Burroughs standing next to a stone chimera in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1953 — “a brother Sphinx,” Ginsberg notes in a caption handwritten on a later print from the original negative. But whatever embarrassing or illicit behaviour was going on in Ginsberg’s circle he left off camera.

Allen Ginsberg - Heroic portrait of Jack Kerouac with R.R Brakeman's manual in pocket, fire-esape 206 E. 7th Street, NY, 16-Dec-86- Howard Greenberg Gallery
Heroic portrait of Jack Kerouac with R.R Brakeman’s manual in pocket, fire-esape 206 E. 7th Street, NY, 16-Dec-86
Allen Ginsberg - Peter Orlovsky age 21 with our first care "The Hearse", San Francisco, 1955 - Howard Greenberg Gallery
Peter Orlovsky age 21 with our first care “The Hearse”, San Francisco, 1955

Soon after taking those pictures, Ginsberg lost the camera he’d been using, and it would be another 20 years before he would return to photography. He put the prints and negatives he had made in a desk drawer, and they remained unseen until a cataloger discovered them in the archives of personal papers that Ginsberg had given to Columbia University, his alma mater.

Allen Ginsberg - Peter Orlovsky and Jack Kerouac squinting in morning sunlight, William Burroughs prone observing in his olive green army jacket, Tangier, 1957 - Howard Greenberg Gallery
Peter Orlovsky and Jack Kerouac squinting in morning sunlight, William Burroughs prone observing in his olive
Allen Ginsberg - Peter Orlovsky, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1955 - Howard Greenberg Gallery
Peter Orlovsky, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1955

Seeing these old snapshots reignited Ginsberg’s interest in photography, and he began taking pictures again, using better-quality cameras on the advice of the photographer Robert Frank, an old friend. Almost all of the images from this later phase, during which he began adding the matter-of-fact, handwritten captions to prints from old and new negatives, date from 1984 to 1996.

Ginsberg’s inscribed photographs were the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 2010 with an accompanying book entitled, Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg. 

Allen Ginsberg - Jack Kerouac passing statue of Samuel Cox, Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1953 - Howard Greenberg Gallery
Jack Kerouac passing statue of Samuel Cox, Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1953

5 Comments Add yours

  1. When I was a child, I was personally mentored by Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged me to, “dedicate my life to writing”. I worked a series of unrelated jobs, had a successful career in the fire department, and in my 40’s finally took Allen’s advice and started writing full-time. When I knew him during the last few years of his life, he used a 35mm point and shoot camera; by no means was his camera professional or high-quality.

    1. pammyv02 says:

      That’s incredible!! Thank you for sharing this with us.

      1. pammyv02 says:

        Thank you the link. He was indeed a great man and amazing that he took the time to mentor and most importantly listen to as a child. Something that’s rare. Thank you so much for sharing such an amazing story with me. It means a lot.

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