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Angel Headed Hipsters

An exhibition catalogue of Beat Memories by Allen Ginsberg.

Book Cover Sometimes I actually take note of how many days are like that winter holiday where people are encouraged to spend all the money they make on gifts, and then they are encouraged to shop at sales and buy the stuff they bought for other people at deep discounts. The various delivery men that reach my door bearing (as far as I am concerned) gifts is one of the benefits of being officially recognized as a reader by book publishers. The occasion for my acknowledging my blessings was the receipt of the new catalogue Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg (Prestel), edited by curator Sara Greenough and coinciding with the exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Art from now until September 6, 2010.

There are quips by photographers like Robert Capa and WeeGee along the lines of, “F/8 and be there” (“f/11 and hold it steady” was the advice that Walker Evans gave), which speaks to fortuity in photography. Which is to say it’s not necessary to consider Ginsberg as a photographic artist—the milieu he found himself in was of sufficient interest to warrant our continued attention, though I do wonder what generations who can’t remember beyond Kurt Cobain make of him.

As the story goes, Ginsberg (1926-1997) purchased a secondhand Kodak camera in the late 1940’s, and until around 1955 he conscientiously chronicled himself and his Beat Generation friends, including Jack Kerouac (whose silly-faced picture is the cover of this monograph), William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and Beat personality Neal Cassady. Ginsberg gave up taking pictures in 1963 until his photographer pals Berenice Abbott and Robert Frank encouraged him to continue/resume his photography. This, of course, resulted in an expanded body of work that includes acquaintances such as Larry Rivers, Francesco Clemente, and Bob Dylan. Of the over 70 photos (five are in color), most include elaborate inscriptions Ginsberg added to them, spurred by Ginsberg’s recognition that “the poignancy of photography comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world.”

Curator Sara Greenough adds her thoughts on Ginsberg’s photos in relationship to both his poetry and contemporaneous photography in a concise essay. And rounding out this well-reproduced book are a chronology and excerpts of interviews of Allen Ginsberg from the 1950’s to the end of his life. Beat Memories is fine and gentle reminder of a time and point of view long past.
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