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Allen Ginsberg’s Photos at the GalleristNY

By Harriet Staff

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Michael H. Miller takes a look at the current Allen Ginsberg photo exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, summing up the whole show thusly:

As a photographer, Ginsberg was no Robert Frank, though he was highly influenced by Frank’s candid and imperfect style (Frank also appears in some of the works here). But as historical documentation of a group of people who came of age in New York, it’s essential. Ginsberg and his peers hardly need an argument made for their importance, but this exhibition does manage the feat of making the poet and his friends come across as human, not just figures that loom large over several generations of American writing.

Miller seems to offer a much more positive and contextualized spin on Ginsberg’s photographs than this recent review in the NYTs. Where the Times article judges Ginsberg’s photography on each photo’s individual merit, Miller tries to capture themes Ginsberg returned to over time. The most prominent theme, Miller argues, is that of decline.

There is one image here that measures up to Ginsberg’s writing. It’s a fairly famous photograph of Kerouac a few moments after ingesting the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine. He’s bulky, bulging out over the edge of his chair, wearing a sport coat and a child-like cap that doesn’t fit over his head, and frowning as if he has just watched his own ill-attended funeral, a real American kind of grimace. He looks old, even though the pictures of him all young and strapping are from fewer than 10 years earlier. Ginsberg writes, “The last time he visited my apartment 704 East 5th Street N.Y.C., he looked by then like his late father, red-faced corpulent W.C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror.” The exhibition prepares you for such a seemingly rapid descent in the form of a foreshadowing letter Kerouac wrote to the poet Gregory Corso in October, 1958:

My mother and I are leaving NY soon and moving back to Florida where it’s cheaper to live and also where I can write more and fool around less with a thousand repetitious parties and appearances in NY City which is too close for comfort to this my desk. When I wanta get laid I’ll go to Havana by god.

(In a cruder bit of prescience, this letter is juxtaposed with publicity materials for Kerouac from around the same time, which state, “Word has just been received from the author’s agent that purchase of On the Road by the movies may be finalized next week. Details to come.” It’s impossible to say how Kerouac would feel about the current movie version of On the Road starring Kristen Stewart and two cherubic British guys, but the DMT grimace seems about right.)

Ginsberg was skilled at candid shots that narrate a fall. A picture from 1985 of Harry Smith, the great ethnomusicologist who compiled The Anthology of American Folk Music, falling asleep on top of a plate of Chinese takeout comes pretty close to the power of a withering Jack Kerouac. Smith, suffering from a knee fracture, was homeless at the time, heavily bearded, and looking so near death that you can almost smell the corpse-scent emanating from the emulsion (he hung on for another five years before succumbing to a bleeding ulcer in the Chelsea Hotel).

Perhaps Ginsberg was skilled at capturing decline because, like Kerouac, he lived fast and was doomed to inevitable burnout. As his fame grew and his health worsened, the quality and frequency of the poems dropped. His verse in his later years could be so utterly inane that the phrases take on the feeling of punch lines, as with a poem like “CIA Dope Calypso”: “Mesopotamia was doing just fine/Till the Ottomon Empire blew up on a mine/They had apple orchards in Eden and Ur/Till the Snake advised George Bush ‘This land is yours.’” He was already considered among the greatest poets of the second half of the 20th century by the time he wrote that, his celebrity intact. A late self-portrait from this era is jarring and oddly seductive—he’s hunched and naked, not quite smiling as he rests his arm on the paunch that his torso has become. Looking at it evokes a feeling similar to the one you get when you read a poem Ginsberg wrote when he was zonked out on benzedrine—a kind of can’t-bring-yourself-to-look-away attraction.

There much more food for thought—surf over and check it out.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 24th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.