Book review by Rob Couteau
“Allen Ginsberg, Photographe.” FNAC Montparnasse; Galeries Photos. 136, rue de Rennes, 75006 Paris. October 30-December 29, 1990.
Combating the rigid style of academic poetry and prose in the 1940s and ’50s, Beat Generation writers, guided by the self-proclaimed “King of the Beats,” Jack Kerouac, sought to render the “beatific” in life and art. Their work, though carefully grounded in literary tradition, stirred the consciousness of the day with a call to the spontaneous, provocative, personal, and lyrical yet vernacular use of language.
Critics of the Beats have disparaged the self-absorbed, narcissistic content in some of their writing. Although classics such as Kerouac’s On the Road, Corso’s “Gasoline,” and Ginsberg’s “Howl” have survived the brutal vituperations of academia, many lesser-known Beat creations have failed to transcend a focus at once idiosyncratic and egoistic.
Some of these concerns come to mind while viewing Allen Ginsberg’s photography exposition at FNAC Montparnasse. Although Ginsberg was successful in transforming the personal elements of his life into a larger poetic vision, his attempts in the photographic realm often fail to hold the viewer’s interest. While a few classic Beat images are included here (Kerouac posed heroically on Ginsberg’s Manhattan fire escape; Corso and Burroughs visiting Paul Bowles in Tangiers), most of the photos remain of interest only to the most devout Beat aficionado. These include a self-portrait of Ginsberg sitting nude and flabby in a yoga position, stoned and staring at his bathroom mirror (1985); several drab group portraits; and a photo of Ginsberg’s former lover, Peter Orlovsky, visiting his family. The captions are handwritten by Ginsberg, and each tends to an overly detailed avuncular style, noting trivia such as the kitchen sink where Herbert Huncke used to shoot-up, thereby immortalizing some rather obscure moments in “Beat History.”
Although the exhibit suffers from self-indulgence, it also provides a few noteworthy glimpses of literary history. One photo of William Burroughs with a pained, lovelorn expression is striking in illuminating a little-known aspect of this innovative author; another captures an intensely self-assured Gregory Corso (the most primal Beat poet) radiating his unmistakable aura of survival. Other portraits include poet Anne Waldman in a tender embrace with Burroughs; the painter Larry Rivers at work in his studio; whirlwind Neil Cassidy–the frenetic spirit behind the Beat movement–uncharacteristically at rest in bed; and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who published Ginsberg’s “Howl”) sitting alone in a San Francisco cafe.
Such “family snapshot”-style work exemplifies the theme of this year’s Le Mois de la Photo, with its emphasis on avoiding the dramatic and spectacular and, instead, focusing on photography as a medium that expresses a more personal, intimate vision.