Somewhere, there is a snapshot of Allen Ginsberg and me sitting next to each other on a sofa — capturing us both in a rare moment of clean-shavenness — taken in 1981, when the poet visited Williams College for a reading. I don’t recall who took the photo, although I’m pretty sure it was snapped at a brunch hosted by a religion professor named Nathan Katz, who knew Ginsberg and brought him to Williams.
At the time, Ginsberg’s visit was seen as something transgressive on the campus of this elite, private New England institution founded in 1793. Katz was an immensely popular professor among a large minority of students, and probably as a result of his popularity — and maybe because he brought the world’s most famous gay Jewish poet to campus — he was denied tenure in the otherwise Judenrein religion department later that year.
Katz, who was actually hired as a specialist in Eastern religions and went on to be profiled in Rodger Kamenetz’s memoir of a Jewish delegation’s visit to the Dalai Lama, “The Jew in the Lotus,” probably hadn’t helped his cause by also bringing such Jewish rebels as Arthur Waskow and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to campus, as well as leading the campaign for a Jewish studies concentration, a struggle finally won about a decade after his — and my — departure from Williams in 1982.
All this — as well as the 90-minute car ride from the Albany airport, where I fetched Ginsberg for Katz in my 1976 Chevy Chevette and brought him back to Williamstown, Mass. — came back to me as I walked through “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.
The show, on display through April 6 before traveling to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco, where it will be on view from May 23 to September 9, consists of casual snapshots and more considered photographs taken by Ginsberg, mostly of his friends and himself, before 1963 and in the late-1980s and ’90s. (Ginsberg died in 1997.) Given the makeup of Ginsberg’s peer group, which included William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and others, the exhibit — which also includes typescripts, handwritten poems, first editions, notes and letters — winds up documenting the birthing of the Beat movement and, by extension, that thing we refer to as “the ‘60s.”
The exhibition, curated by Sarah Greenough at the National Gallery of Art and featuring more than 110 black-and-white photographs, has been faulted elsewhere for what it lacks: any representation of the cultural ferment of the ‘60s, to which Ginsberg often had a front-row seat when he wasn’t actually one of the actors onstage. Through waning interest, preoccupation with other pursuits (poetry and politics, primarily) and, apparently, a penchant for losing cameras, Ginsberg stopped taking photos in 1963 and didn’t resume doing so until the 1980s. But we have been oversaturated with images of that era, so to fault the show for what it lacks is really beside the point.
Instead, especially in his earliest photographs, what Ginsberg offers in his pictures (a few taken by friends to whom he handed the camera) is a behind-the-scenes view of the gestation and hatching of this era through intimate glimpses of so many of its key figures and influencers. Thus, half a decade before he became famous as the icon of the Beat generation, we see a proud, strutting, athletic, self-confident Kerouac, fancied by Ginsberg and himself as a movie icon. We see a suspicious, brooding Burroughs (whom Ginsberg had just visited when I picked him up at the airport, and who still apparently had a great hold on Ginsberg’s imagination, as he was spouting Burroughs’s nonsensical ravings about Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor as having dangerously triggered the onset of a war of “Gog vs. Magog”), seemingly challenging Ginsberg’s lens to a staring contest.