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5.0 out of 5 stars Seeing with the Eyes of the Angels, 19 May 2010
This review is from: Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg (Hardcover)
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is currently (May 2 -- September 6,2010) exhibiting a collection of photographs by the American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926 -- 1997). The Beats remain one of my passions. The book is produced and edited by Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the deparment of photographs at the National Gallery. Greenough sets the stage for the photographs which follow with an insightful introductory essay bearing the title of this review. She discusses Ginsberg's use of photography at various times during his life and relates his photographic endeavors to his poetry.

Together with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, Ginsberg was at the center of a small group of young men in the vicinity of Columbia University in the mid-1940s who would become notorious as the "Beats" of the 1950s. As described by Greenough (p.7), "the Beats were outsiders with a keen appreciation of life on the edge. Often living hand-to-mouth and uninterested in middle-class American culture, values, and morality, they embraced instead an alternative lifestyle which promoted personal freedom, sexual openness, spontanaiety, movement, and speed."

Ginsberg had an epiphany in the 1940s which led him to his calling as a poet. He would become famous as the author of "Howl" and "Kaddish." In his early years, he gradually developed an interest in photography, taking most of his pictures on an inexpensive box camera. He essentially gave up photography in the 1960s but recovered his interest in the medium in the 1980s and returned to his long-forgotten photographs of years earlier. In a small but generally legible script, Ginsberg added annotations to many of his earlier pictures. In his latter years, Ginsberg's photographs attracted considerable interest, and he taught courses and lectured together with the famous photographer Robert Frank.

In 1990,Ginsberg offered the following description of the impact of his photography which serves as a preface to the pictures in this volume: "The poignancy of a photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world." Ginsberg's photos capture people, places, and moods of the utmost transience. Yet they are preserved and speak to the viewer through the medium of photographic art. These photographs have a sense of immediacy and spontaniety, especially for those viewers interested in the Beats.

The written annotations add a great deal to the photographs and, with effort, are legible. The annotations are also given in print in the "Checklist" section of the volume. There are many unforgettable photographs of both a young and a prematurely aged Jack Kerouac, including the photo on the cover of the volume and a photo of the charismatically handsome Kerouac standing of the fire escape of Ginsberg's apartment and gazing over east Manhattan in 1953. There are many photographs of William Burroughs as well,, including a photo of Burroughs lecturing Kerouac on the need to leave home and break his dependence on his mother. (p. 42) Neal Cassady is featured in several photographs, including a timeless scene from San Francisco in March 1955 with Cassady and his lover of the time embracing in front of a movie marquis. (p.53) There are revealing photographs of poets Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder, of aging early figures in the "Beat" movement, Lucien Carr (p.83) and Herbert Hunke (p.78) and of others affiliated with the Beats or with Ginsberg over the years.

There are photgraphs of Allen Ginsberg himself, from his youth to old age and a rare photograph of his parents (p.29) and other family members. Ginsberg's long-term lover, Peter Orlovsky, receives a good deal of attention, as does Orlovsky's family. And there are many photographs of places, especially New York City, that are irreplaceable, such as the 1953 photograph of what Ginsberg's annotation describes as a "shopping cart street prophet" (p.35) and photographs shot from Ginsberg's window onto Manhattan's lower east side late in his life (pp 98,99).

The book is in a large format printed on glossy paper with excellent reproductions. In addition to the photgraphic plantes and Greenough's introduction, the volume includes a chronology of Ginsberg's involvement with photography and the text of a 1991 interview of Ginsberg on photography conducted by Thomas Gladysz, who has also reviewed this volume here on Amazon.

This book will be treasured by those interested in the Beats. For those planning to be in Washington D.C., a visit to the National Gallery always is rewarding. This exhibit will be worth your time.

Robin Friedman
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Robin Friedman
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Location: Washington, D.C. United States

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