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.
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.
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.
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.