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What’s remarkable about so many of these early snapshots, presumably taken informally and somewhat off the cuff, is how self-aware both the photographer and the subjects were. Ginsberg had had no formal photography training. But as early as 1955, he shows at least an organic understanding of how to compose a shot: A portrait of Orlovsky at the shore is a textbook demonstration of Photography 101’s “rule of thirds.”
Some of these shots, were they of your friends or relatives or of mine, would merely be family-album material. In Ginsberg’s case, his family members were nothing less than cultural revolutionaries — and media-savvy ones to boot. A number of images show the influence of cinema, including a pose wherein Cassady and a girlfriend embrace beneath a movie marquee. Kerouac, captured in New York City, posing like the original Beat hipster he was, clearly modeled himself after Brando. A shot of Burroughs naked but for boxers in bed looks like a movie still: The focal point is the tufted bedspread and his left knee in the foreground; his torso and head and the pillow are gauzy, out of focus, adding to the post-coital mood that the pose suggests.The exhibit is full of moments like these, which ask the question: Can intimacy and exhibitionism coexist?
While the exhibition’s strongest point is its window into the early camaraderie of the Beats — with a strong, homoerotic undercurrent, including plenty of bare midriffs and several full-length naked portraits of Ginsberg and friends — it is bookended by Ginsberg’s (presumably unintended) portrayal of the dissipation of that life and world, beginning with a portrait of a disheveled, stoned and broken Kerouac in 1964. He is hardly recognizable as the same athletic hunk in a swimsuit on a beach in Tangier, Morocco, in 1957. Later, the incipient mortality of Ginsberg’s generation is underscored by a series of shots of the elderly Burroughs and Corso, of an aging Bob Dylan, and of Ginsberg himself.
The Dylan portrait is cute; it captures his longtime friend — who immortalized the poet in the “Basement Tapes”-era parody, “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg,” recorded with the Band a few years after Ginsberg appeared in the proto-music video for Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — wearing a leather jacket like a cape in Tompkins Square Park. Ginsberg writes in a caption for the photo that the two of them were chased away by a group of homeless men throwing bottles, mistakenly assuming that they were taking pictures of them. I like to think that maybe they thought these two scraggly old Jews were homeless men like themselves, homing in on their territory.
On that car ride to Williamstown from Albany, Ginsberg referred to himself as “a Jew who pays lip service to Buddhism,” a striking confession at the time for the original JuBu. Equally striking is Ginsberg’s portrait of his paternal grandmother, Rebecca “Buba” Ginsberg. He frames this Russia-born socialist in front of a window in an otherwise sparsely populated image, shirt buttoned up to her collar, cardigan over her shirt, with a meager plate of food placed in front of her, grimacing like some crusty Midwestern farmer’s wife — the very picture of “immigrant gothic.” It’s hard to believe that the occasion for the shot is a Passover Seder. It’s even hard to believe that this woman is Jewish. Ginsberg himself would wrestle with that legacy his whole life, which, of course, is the most traditional thing for a Jew to do.
Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet.” (Scribner, 2009)