Feature

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg

The snapshots poet Allen Ginsberg took in the 1950s of himself, Jack Kerouac, and other charter members of the beat movement are now on display at the National Gallery of Art.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Through Sept. 6

“Writers come alive through their words,” but some things can only be communicated through pictures, said Amy Cavanaugh in the Washington Express. Take the dozens of snapshots poet Allen Ginsberg took in the 1950s of himself, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and other charter members of the beat movement, as they tirelessly sought artistic and spiritual transcendence in New York; Tangier, Morocco; and many other places. Now on display at the National Gallery of Art, the photographs provide “a compelling look” at Ginsberg’s beat brethren when they were young, idealistic, and eager to suck the life from every moment. It turns out that “the same ideas found in his poetry—celebrating the present moment, observing the world—are also in his art.”

I’m not quite sure that we should call Ginsberg’s cheap snapshots “art,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Ginsberg liked to think that he was doing something more ambitious than just taking pictures of friends—“of course, Ginsberg also fancied himself a musician and songwriter, but that resulted in reams of his worst work.” The strongest photographs here actually aren’t the images that seem to celebrate the vitality of youth but those that meditate on the mysteries of aging and death. A 1953 photograph of his grandmother, in front of a thin white curtain, “looks as if her waning spirit is about to be subsumed or dissipated into the mysterious white light.” Even more affecting is the image of “a broken-down Kerouac,” ravaged by alcoholism, slumped in a chair in Ginsberg’s apartment in 1964. “It’s hard not to be moved by images of bright, creative people, captured in youth and again in later life.”

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