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Ginsberg Captured the Best Minds of His Generation

Those angel-headed hipsters, the Beat poets, reset the sound of poetry in this country, leaving behind a legacy in language that resonates even today.

But for the most part, it was a legacy built on words: Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” and William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” portrayed the verbal landscape equivalent of the far side of the moon, upending the literary world of 1950s America in a way that this country hadn’t seen since Walt Whitman sounded his barbaric yawp.

But now we can share what is in essence the family scrapbook of the tight-knit and loving community of Beat poets and writers, thanks to an intimate and entrancing photography exhibit, “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” at the National Gallery of Art.

Who knew that Allen Ginsberg was an accomplished photographer? The poet started off shooting casually on a secondhand $13 Kodak camera as a way to record the daily stuff of his own life and of friends Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Lucien Carr.

Although he saved his work, it was only later (encouraged by the photographer Robert Frank) that he looked again at the photographs and wrote long, chatty captions underneath them in his curly handwriting.

The exhibit of more than 75 photographs is as charming for its pictures spanning from 1953 to Ginsberg’s death in 1997 as it is for those long and revealing narratives accompanying the photos. Even if he really only intended the writing to be for his friends, it’s ours to read now.

For lovers of the Beat poets, there are delights: the sweet portraits of a boyish and handsome Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s longtime lover; a grinning, fresh-faced young Ginsberg; and a virile, T-shirted Kerouac.

For the men (and yes, they were all men) who, as curator Sarah Greenough says, “shaped the collective conscience of the post-war generation” and “helped form the world we now inhabit,” the collection reveals much of their daily life, simply lounging at home, posing as tourists on trips around the world and mugging for the camera like anyone’s silly little brother.

One question, of course, is whether these pictures were ever intended to be seen by the larger public. “What would Allen say?” Greenough asked in her remarks to open the exhibit. “What would Allen say?”

The answer, in part, lies in the generous descriptions Ginsberg wrote onto the photos. On one photo he wrote: “Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel ‘Sunset’ Cox, ‘The Letter-Carrier’s Friend,’ in Tompkins Square toward corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side; he’s making a Dostoyevsky-mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om, just walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pockets, Fall 1953, Manhattan.” It’s clear that Ginsberg wanted us to experience this moment, too.

In short, Greenough says, Ginsberg understood that “each picture had a story to tell.” Even the later photographs, pictures that showed these friends sickened, aging and dying, were still a “continual celebration of life,” Greenough says.

There are times when the viewer feels she is viewing something intensely private and maybe a little painful — a bloated, unrecognizable Kerouac in 1964, sitting in Ginsberg’s apartment; a naked Ginsberg himself toward the end of his life, with skinny arms and legs but also a round Buddha belly; a dying Burroughs, stick thin and resting on a moth-eaten outdoor cushion. One almost needs to look away.

But the vernacular sense of the young and joyful Beats also lifts spirits — the men, encircled by arms, standing outside City Lights bookstore in San Francisco just days before the U.S. publication of “Howl;” a very sexy Kerouac looking over a used car lot in San Francisco. These early photographs, Greenough says, captured Ginsberg’s friends “as they were on the cusp of fame” — not famous just yet but living with the confidence that they were close.

Ferlinghetti, who founded San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, had heard Ginsberg read his masterpiece “Howl” in 1955 and sent Ginsberg a telegram: “I greet you at the beginning of a great literary career.” Those, of course, were the same words the 19th-century Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to the budding poet Whitman. For both, it was a fitting salutation.

Busboys and Poets is hosting a “Howl in the City” reading of the poem July 16 and 17 at its Fifth Street location, using poets such as Ethelbert Miller to give voice to one of the 20th century’s great works of poetry.

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