Thursday, 30 May 2013

Beat Memories

I had the pleasure of working at the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week for the opening of Beat Memories: The photographs of Allen Ginsberg. As well as the main exhibition, there was a curator's talk, a stunning performance of Ginsberg’s poem “America” by Conspiracy of Beards’ musical director Daryl Henline. There was also a zine making corner, a typewriter petting zoo, a bar and readings by local poets.

Ginsberg is one of the most prolific photographers and chroniclers of his group of friends and co-conspirators. Whether or not his photographers can be classed as 'art' is a rather contentious issue, as he originally intended them as snapshots of his beat family, and they were stashed away in storage and forgotten about for years until the 1980's, when with the encouragement of other artists and photographers he began to print many of the undeveloped negatives. This was also when he began writing the inscriptions beneath the images, as a record of what it was he was seeing when he originally took the photos, and what he saw now, years later. Ginsberg is not just any casual picture taker though, and some of the portraits, such as a young Gregory Corso dressed like a Romantic hero in cape and staff crouching in the dust filled confines of a stairway attest. There is a definite self-consciousness to many of the pictures, and the writings under the images add another dimension to the images. Ginsberg is after all, a poet, even if he began to fancy himself a photographer with the encouragement of photographers Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott. As his written commentary on the images expanded, he had to increasingly print the photographs smaller in order to allow more room for his writings. I think this is what tells where his allegiance lies. The words do more than annotate the contents of the picture, they are given equal prominence. It was during this time that Ginsberg conducted a series of talks about 'snapshot poetics' or 'photographic poetics' drawing connections between the two mediums. He gives directives to the photographer/poet in which he states: “Ordinary mind includes eternal perceptions. Notice what you notice. Observe what’s vivid. Catch yourself thinking. Vividness is self-selecting. And remember the future.”

Whether you view it as a profoundly personal record of a generation of writers and characters, or as pieces of art to be promoted alongside Ginsberg's poetry, the pictures are still moving and interesting interventions into the divisions between words and image, photography and poetry.

Beat Memories is on view May 23–September 8, 2013

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