By Stephen Bugno
Last Sunday I caught the Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
While the photos themselves are not necessarily extraordinary as the Washington Post will attest, the exhibit as a whole offers us an extraordinary look into the Beat generation through the eyes and lens of one of its foremost visionaries and in a few cases of Ginsberg himself on the opposite side of the camera. According to the Post “it’s hard not to be moved by images of bright, creative people, captured in youth and again late in life.”
And I was moved.
Ginsberg was a poet and spokesman for his generation of disenchanted youth and for the movement that pulled away from the strict conformist confines of post-World War II, McCarthy-era America.
The photos capture the anarchic group of mostly male bohemian hedonists who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. They combined poetry, song, sex, wine and illicit drugs with passionate political ideas that championed personal freedoms.
The Beats were travelers too. Ginsberg visited William S. Burroughs while he was living in Morocco. One photo shows a naked Ginsberg coming out of the ocean with a cave-man like appearance.
Burroughs hit the road in South America and Mexico to escape probable time in a Louisiana prison. And Kerouac, shot in one photo hunched over near the end of his life in 1964, the last time he visited Ginsberg, captured the essence of the transient lifestyle of the Beats in 1957’s On the Road.
There in the National Gallery, with my arms folded, chilled by the air conditioning in this windowless gallery, I stand two feet in front of a much younger Jack Kerouac. In the margin underneath this photo of Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, I decipher Ginsberg’s sloppy cursive writing. His long-winded, free-flowing style forces me to reconsider the properness and conformity with which I write and the certain lack of creativity and style in my own writing.
Ginsberg’s poetry embodied an individualistic style, sometimes chaotic, and open, ecstatic expression of thoughts and feelings that were naturally poetic.
Each hand written caption reminds me of the importance of keeping writing, art, and photography personal. Each snapshot offers us a glimpse into a moment of time, just a glance into a fragment of each person’s life.
In some shots Ginsberg offers us a portrait, and in others just a simple view out of a run-down lower east side apartment building. It captures New York City in this moment and at the same time captures decades worth of long, drawn out cups of tea in a kitchen.
I sat for decades at morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window, one day recognized my own world the familiar background, a giant wet brick-walled undersea Atlantis garden, waving ailanthus (“stinkweed”) “Trees of Heaven,” with chimney pots along Avenue A topped by Stuyvesant Town apartments’ upper floors two blocks distant on 14th Street, I focus’d on the raindrops along the clothesline. “Things are symbols of themselves,” said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. New York City August 18, 1984
The exhibit takes us through the years: from a young and energetic Ginsberg in 1953 with his new secondhand Kodak camera to the old and fading W. S. Burroughs at rest in the sideyard of his house looking at the sky, empty timeless Lawrence Kansas in 1991.
Beat Memories runs until September 6, 2010 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.