zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







about zing



the royal art lodge
3d lutwidge finch
luis macias
bob seng
Allen 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


It is 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 creatures—and we must recognize ourselves in them—know first about whatever is uttered is how one looks uttering it. We can’t 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 “You’d 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 friend’s photo, or your baby’s, is saying, “You look great. You’d make a great photo. Memento mori.”
Despite attitudes that we might tend to associate with either monks or Sontag, the phrase memento mori needn’t 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 Ginsberg’s 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 wouldn’t have fallen in love with Peter Orlovsky, as Ginsberg did? We see Jack Kerouac handsome in profile in the East Village; Neal Cassady’s profile casting a shadow over his girlfriend Natalie Jackson’s eyes, under a movie-marquee collage: Marlon Brando/“The Wild One”/“Stranger Wore Gun” [sic]/“Tarzan the Ape Man”; Gregory Corso in a magician’s cape, hunched in his Parisian garret. Ginsberg’s 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 Ginsberg’s 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 men’s club.
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; Ginsberg’s 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!”

Jeanne Marie Wasilik
Brooklyn, New York