Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Ausen,
Gregory Corso, Ian Sommerville (left to right), and Paul Bowles (seated),
Tanger, July 61, gelatin silver print
GINSBERG: SNAPSHOT: TIBOR DE NAGY GALLERY NEW YORK, NEW YORK
not hard to imagine the following scene as a Gap ad: A group of pretty
youth, slouch-standing in their corduroys, hair just-so mussed, reciting
Howl in a monotone as the camera cuts from one face to another. Each face
is composed to suggest intelligence, but is bent on the real message,
which is the look of hip-ness. What these creaturesand we must recognize
ourselves in themknow first about whatever is uttered is how one
looks uttering it. We cant escape our long education in the mirror
of photographic images. It has been at our collective neck for over a
century now, and breathes down ever hotter, or rather cooler, with each
passing decade. Maybe in a few more decades our common greeting You
look great will become simply Youd make a great photo.
We have already started saying it.
Ages ago, Catholic monks used Memento mori as a greeting:
Hello, Brother, remember that you will die. As Susan Sontag
has noted, every photograph is a memento mori, a moment seized from the
flow of time, sure proof of change and death. Taking your hip-looking
friends photo, or your babys, is saying, You look great.
Youd make a great photo. Memento mori.
Despite attitudes that we might tend to associate with either monks or
Sontag, the phrase memento mori neednt be construed as a death threat.
It is a simple, if poignant, fact that all is transitory. A few crucial
degrees off the morbid view, but still in the realm of the religious,
lies an alternative: an appreciation of the sacredness of every moment
as it passes, as pass it must. This latter view describes Allen Ginsbergs
attitude as a photographer. From the 50s through the 90s,
Ginsberg made photographic memento mori of his friends and contemporaries,
his sacramental companions in time, our Beat Generation icons.
Ginsberg (who sometimes appears in the photographs) and his pals made
great photos. They did look hip. They were hip. They were hip because
they were daring and smart, which is how they looked. They looked beautiful.
Who wouldnt have fallen in love with Peter Orlovsky, as Ginsberg
did? We see Jack Kerouac handsome in profile in the East Village; Neal
Cassadys profile casting a shadow over his girlfriend Natalie Jacksons
eyes, under a movie-marquee collage: Marlon Brando/The Wild One/Stranger
Wore Gun [sic]/Tarzan the Ape Man; Gregory Corso in
a magicians cape, hunched in his Parisian garret. Ginsbergs
companions could pose to effect, but their faces are animated with an
intelligence after more than just a look.
Looking at these pictures today we realize, of course, that we were not
there. Does it then follow that Ginsbergs sacramental awareness
of the present necessarily must end in our voyeuristic nostalgia for the
past? Maybe not, and not least by virtue of our retroactive presence at
the moments of their making. I would wager that Ginsberg realized early
on that his record of passing moments with friends would pass on to us
as a larger historical record. He certainly came to know it, proved in
the captions that he hand-scrawled at the bottom of both later and earlier
pictures. They are more document than poetry. Ginsberg wanted to get it
down for us. He tells us what Corso was working on when he photographed
him in the garret in Paris, that at the same time William Burroughs was
living in the building too and working on Naked Lunch, and that he and
Orlovsky were on the ground floor, Orlovsky writing First Poem
and he beginning Kaddish. Ginsberg knew that they were destined to be
remembered; perhaps they all knew. He describes Cassady and Jackson as
conscious of their roles in eternity and also lets us know
that Jackson would commit suicide, which may be an acknowledgement of
what must have been the difficulty of being a woman at the edge of that
Ginsberg himself did not become nostalgic. He made no concessions when
he photographed aging friends, surely he felt no need. He photographed
Kerouac frankly in 64, when Kerouac was a broken man looking so
much older than his years. There is a 85 picture of an exhausted
Harry Smith (the painter and filmmaker), head in hand at a table in front
of the remnants of Chinese take-out. A late portrait of Corso, Maestro
Poet, ancient herald messenger-god, was taken in 95 at a Greenwich
Village bar; Ginsbergs caption tells us that they had talked until
suppertime, when a tired Corso took a cab home.
The pictures shown at Tibor de Nagy are part of a larger group, many of
which are reproduced in the book Allen Ginsberg: Photographs (Twelvetrees
Press, 90). The book handsomely reproduces the images and their
captions, which changed slightly each time Ginsberg wrote them, usually
becoming longer; but as discrete objects, the photographs are each more
fully memento mori. And as framed photographs on a gallery wall we view
them in a public place, where we ourselves are subject to observation.
Let the prayer be that we are present in the moment of our looking at
them, that we do not sentimentalize the past in them, that we forget how
we look when they make us draw in breath and utter, Oh!
Brooklyn, New York