The San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum currently has an exhibition presenting the photography of Allen Ginsberg. This exhibit has been on my hit list all summer and I finally had the pleasure of attending it last week with a close friend of mine. Unfortunately, the exhibit ends this upcoming September 8th and I’ll admit that its imminent closing was the motivation for my most recent attendance.
Ginsberg was of course the iconic poet of the Beat movement of the 1940’s and 50’s, but he was also a photographer with an eye for capturing the moment. Since he moved around so frequently, many of his photographs were stashed away and in the 1980’s he later rediscovered many of his old photos and wrote inscriptions below each print that described the moment with Ginsberg’s insightful thoughts. The photos depict many of the now famous authors and poets such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady and Ginsberg’s lover, Peter Orlovsky when they were very young and full of whimsical exuberance.
Oddly, the exhibit infused me with a sense of nostalgia for a time that I never lived through. In my undergraduate years I was enamored by the Beats, always turning to their poems between my studies and my dog-eared copy of On The Road motivated me to live as though I were a traveling spirit, savoring the view of my surroundings as though each passing moment was a fleeting gift. The drive and energy that lives in their written works was captured by Ginsberg in these photos and viewing them provided me with a renewed appreciation for these men that lived outside the culture of capitalism. Viewing the photos filled me with reflection upon my younger self and the values that were inspired in me through the written works of the Beats.
In my adult years I have changed much from the idealistic youth that I once was. Such is the way of life. The freedom of spirit must discover the chains of time, but I am reminded that the inspiration of innocence does provide the necessary key. I lack the enamor I once held for the Beats, but this recent exhibit reminded me that a love for them continues on within me. It is strange that both images and words of people from another time can influence my mood and outlook, yet the power to influence is the essence of art.
The exhibit also depicted Ginsberg’s later photos from the 1960’s through the 80’s. These photos displayed the influence of the hippie years with a long-bearded and often naked Ginsberg gallivanting through scenes of nature. Most of these later photos didn’t give me the same nostalgic feeling as the 1940’s and 50’s photos, however one photo in particular walloped me with an overbearing sadness. The photo of an elder Jack Kerouac (depicted to the left) shows a defeated man and Ginsberg’s words below the photo say:
“he then looked like his father, corpulent red-faced W.C. Fields yawning with mortal horror, eyes closed a moment on D.M.T. visions.” The image is a sobering reminder of the suffering endured by a generation once hopeful that they could forever live through the spirit of art separate and apart from the culture of capitalism. Although the beats were a collective movement, Kerouac was the celebrated celebrity face of the movement. The photo of an aged and worn-out Kerouac suggests the worn-out end of the movement that has been swept aside by the tide of consumerism and capitalism.
“Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we
thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue sad-eyed,
surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of the trees of machinery.”
From Allen Ginsberg’s Sunflower Sutra