Allen Ginsberg’s Beat Memories at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco in August 2013

Observe what’s vivid. Catch yourself thinking. Vividness is self-selecting. And remember the future. —Allen Ginsberg

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through September 8, 2013. Ginsberg became well known in the 1950’s as a leader of the Beat Generation. When it was first published in 1956, his poem “Howl” ignited controversy and sealed Ginsberg’s reputation as a formidable poet. Influenced by Whitman’s free verse and departing from formal traditions, Ginsberg went on to publish numerous volumes of poetry.

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Ginsberg began taking photos of his friends and colleagues, many of them fellow Beats including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The intimate and personal style of these photos, many of which have now become iconic images of the young Beats, revealed his deep affection for his friends and lovers during their entwined careers and relationships. After purchasing a Kodak Retina camera, Ginsberg increased his documentary-style photographic output between 1953 and 1963, after which he continued on as an occasional photographer until his death in 1997.

These photographs and negatives, a family album of sorts for the Beat and counterculture generation, were catalogued in the Ginsberg archive at Columbia University in the 1980’s. At that time, many of the pictures were reprinted with new written inscriptions by Ginsberg. Hand written retrospective musings brought an extra dimension to the stories behind the images as the poet takes in that captured moment from the perspective of years. Inspired by the discoveries in archiving process, Ginsberg revisited some of his earlier subjects, creating updated portraits.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibition catalog documents this cultural history with more than 70 reproductions accompanied by the exhibition curator Sarah Greenough’s essay on Allen Ginsberg’s photography, his poetry and a chronology of his photographic activity plus selections from interviews. Other related upcoming programs include a Beat Generation photo hunt on August 4, a screening of “Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder” on August 6, a performance “Ginsberg in Song” on August 11th, a screening of “I’m Not There” on September 3, and a closing performance on September 8th, “UnderCover and Faultline Studios Present: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited”.

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