From Attic to Archive
On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” publicly for the first time and blew the lid off post–World War II American poetry. Sharing the bill with Ginsberg that night at the 6 Gallery in San Francisco were Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. Kenneth Rexroth was the emcee, and Jack Kerouac perched on the edge of the stage, urging Ginsberg on with exuberant shouts of “Go!” at the end of each line of the poem. The scene would have made a great picture, but no photographs of the event have ever surfaced.
At least one person in the audience of more than 100 sensed a missed opportunity. Walter Lehrman, a young grad student at UC Berkeley and a friend of the poets, had recently purchased a Rolleicord camera with little more than a hobbyist's interest. He hadn’t thought to take his camera to the 6 Gallery, but the explosive performance inspired him. A few days later, Lehrman invited Ginsberg to his Berkeley apartment for the poet’s first post-Howl portrait session.
Lehrman photographed Ginsberg, Kerouac, and several of their friends over a brief period—from mid-October 1955, just after the 6 Gallery Reading, until June 1956—but it was a critical time as young poets from around the country converged on the Bay Area to create what came to be known as the San Francisco scene. Lehrman was an amateur photographer, but his straightforward pictures are some of the most telling, relaxed images we have of the Beats.
For decades, the prints and negatives moldered in Lehrman’s attic, unseen and slowly deteriorating. Over the past several years, though, they have been painstakingly reclaimed. (I had a role in this salvage operation; more on that in a moment.) Lehrman is now 90 years old, and the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, has acquired his photographs and established the Walter Lehrman Beat Generation Photograph Collection. Most of the images have never before been published.
Lehrman, a native New Yorker who met Ginsberg and Snyder at UC Berkeley, had a warm rapport with the Beats, and the images reflect that ease. A few weeks after the portrait session in Berkeley, Lehrman took the first photograph ever of Ginsberg reading “Howl,” at an event sponsored by the Poetry Center at San Francisco State College. We see Ginsberg, in sports coat and tie, reading from an early typescript of the poem, his right arm raised high in an anarchic flourish.
The above slideshow highlights a selection of Lehrman’s photographs, some of which capture signal moments in Beat history: a wiry Snyder on the eve of his 1956 departure for a Zen monastery in Japan, Kerouac just prior to his sojourn on Desolation Peak, a rare group photograph of the Beats on stage together at Berkeley’s Town Hall Theater for a 1956 “encore” reading of the earlier 6 Gallery performance. That was a historical event in its own right, as it was the first time Ginsberg read “Howl” in its entirety. (Parts II and III of the poem had not yet been written at the time of the 6 Gallery Reading). This group shot of Lehrman’s is the closest thing we have to a “team picture” of the 6 Gallery poets—a slightly out-of-focus Ginsberg walking away from the Town Hall microphone, Whalen beaming, Snyder grinning at someone offstage, McClure looking at Ginsberg with a kind of awe. (Of the original 6 Gallery poets, only Lamantia was missing.) There is a choice portrait of a contemplative Kerouac, still unknown at 34, more than a year away from the publication of On the Road. And the collection includes a wonderful dual portrait of Whalen and Kerouac that perfectly captures their early relationship—“trying to be the best of brothers,” as Whalen wrote in a letter to Kerouac around that time.
In 1956, Lehrman moved to Ohio, where he taught English for the next 30 years at the University of Akron. He gradually lost touch with his poet friends. A couple of his Beat pictures were published in the late 1950s, but eventually they all went into storage in his attic. In the early 1990s, as academic interest in the Beat generation grew, researchers tracked down Lehrman with requests for his photographs. When he brought his negatives out of storage, he found that many were unprintable due to chemical breakdown of emulsion. Some had suffered water damage; a few appeared to have been scratched at by mice.
Fortunately a number of Lehrman’s pictures were salvageable. In 1994, a handful were included in A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus—an early multimedia CD project, for which I was associate producer. I’m a writer and photographer who has written extensively about the Beats. When I was writing my book Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades (2002), I wanted a portrait of Kerouac as he looked when he set out for Desolation Peak in 1956. I contacted Walter. He made a digital file from an old print, and I prepped it. Over the next few years, I did minor retouching of a few other Lehrman photos, gradually becoming familiar with his stock.
In 2007, the Merrill-Cazier Library began acquiring Lehrman’s photographs. Very-high-resolution scans were made of Lehrman’s original negatives with the library’s support, and I went to work. Some changes I made in Photoshop were routine—the elimination of tiny dust specks or nicks in the emulsion that might have been “spotted out” on prints in the old days with a triple-0 brush; others were more interpretive. I did not attempt to create pristine “restorations” of Lehrman’s images; my intention was to clean up the worst damage without compromising the images’ documentary integrity.
This past October, on the 60th anniversary of the 6 Gallery reading, the Merrill-Cazier Library announced the opening of the Walter Lehrman Beat Generation Photography Collection, providing an archival home for this small but significant trove of portraits and performance shots of the Beats. “It feels great that people will be able to use pictures of mine for their research. I really never expected to see a dollar, or even an exhibit of those pictures, let alone a university collection,” said Lehrman. “I just shot them for the sheer pleasure of hanging out with those guys.”
That may be so, but as Michael McClure remarked upon seeing Lehrman’s photograph of his younger self, Ginsberg, Snyder, and Whalen together on the Berkeley theater stage after 60 years, “No one ever took a photograph of any of us that is more sensitive and true to life.”
John Suiter is the author of Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades (Counterpoint Press, 2002). He lives in Chicago, where he is currently working on a biography of Gary Snyder.