Allen Ginsberg is best remembered as a poet. In the 1950s and '60s, he was the spokesman for a generation of disenchanted misfits who came to be known as the Beats.
But more than a writer, Ginsberg was a political activist, a connoisseur of soups and, through it all, a photographer. On May 2, the first-ever scholarly exhibition of his photographs opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Allen Ginsberg is best remembered as a poet and political activist. In the 1950s and '60s, he spoke for a generation of disenchanted misfits who came to be known as the Beats.
But Ginsberg had many interests and talents. He was, for example, a connoisseur of soups, and he was also a devoted photographer. The first-ever scholarly exhibition of his photographs is now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and NPR's Claire O'Neill reports.
CLAIRE O: Allen Ginsberg basically threw himself into the public eye with his 1956 poem "Howl."
M: (Reading) Visions, omens, hallucinations, miracles, ecstasies gone down the American river.
SIEGEL: The poem and the legal battle around its graphic language helped pave the way for a whole generation of post-war writers and artists who were clamoring for change. But Ginsberg was more than a writer. He was a bearded Buddhist, flower-powered renaissance man. He dabbled in film with an all-star crew that included Jack Kerouac.
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M: Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg there, laying there, beer cans out on the table, bringing up all the wine, wearing hoods and parkas, falling on the couch, all bursting with poetry...
SIEGEL: He experimented in music with Bob Dylan and later with composer Phillip Glass.
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M: I'm an old man now and a lonesome man in Kansas but not afraid to speak my lonesomeness in a car because not only my lonesomeness, it's ours all over America.
SIEGEL: Throughout it all, the one thing he always had with him, besides a pen and paper, was a camera.
M: He was just one of those people every couple of hundred thousand births who can do everything.
SIEGEL: Elsa Dorfman met Ginsberg when she was 22. Today, she's a well-known portrait photographer. But in 1959, she was a secretary at Grove Press, Ginsberg's publisher.
M: Allen was like a genius and a hardworking genius, and so nothing was a hobby. Cooking was serious. Soups were serious. Politics were serious. I mean, he was the most energetic, always-clicking person.
SIEGEL: He was always clicking people and, just like you or I would do, says Ginsberg's archivist and biographer Bill Morgan, he took photos of his friends.
M: In Allen's case, though, his friends were writers and geniuses. And they were just starting out in their careers and nobody knew of them, so nobody else was taking pictures of them. But Allen also had an eye for photography. And as it turned out, when we went back and got all of his photographs together and started looking at them, instead of just saying, hey, that's a photo of Jack Kerouac, we started saying, hey, that's really a good photograph.
SIEGEL: And he did it all with a secondhand Kodak camera, using nothing more than the instructions on the film packets. Ginsberg photographed a young William Burroughs gazing sadly at the camera from behind a pile of books; Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg's lifelong partner, sleeping peacefully; a young and virile and cool Jack Kerouac smoking a cigarette on a fire escape with a railroad brakeman's rulebook in his pocket, a gift from writer Neil Cassady.
M: Allen knew he had taken photographs, but he had never paid a lot of attention to them and threw them into these boxes, boxes, boxes that he had stored away, several hundred.
SIEGEL: Not until the 1980s did Ginsberg rediscover his old photos, says Morgan. He began to inscribe them with long-winded and sometimes humorous captions. At an exhibition preview, curator Sarah Greenough read one, under a photo of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg describes the antics, how Burroughs, camping as an Andre Gidean sophisticate:
M: Lectured the earnest Thomas Wolfe-ian all-American youth Jack Kerouac on the dangers of continuing to live with his mother.
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SIEGEL: He was an observer of people, and as photographer Elsa Dorfman recalls, a quick and curious learner.
M: Allen learned a lot about photography by being photographed by the best photographers in the world, you know, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank. He was like a sponge. So, if he was photographed by Avedon, he would come out and he would've learned the essence of how Avedon works.
SIEGEL: Later in life, when he rediscovered his old pictures, he was inspired to begin photographing again. He got a better camera and his work became more thoughtful and composed. He went on a circuit of lectures around the country, discussing photographic poetics. He sought the advice of photographer Robert Frank, as he told a 1994 panel at the National Gallery of Art.
M: He pointed out photos that I had taken that he liked, and he gave me a few little tips, like the face by itself is a little bit stiff or boring. But if I'm getting close enough to take a picture, always include the hands.
M: And from then on, Allen would always say to somebody: Get your hands in the pictures, to the point where sometimes people are actually holding their hands up to display to Allen.
SIEGEL: Archivist Bill Morgan says that Ginsberg's photographs were playful, but they also meant a lot to him.
M: He called them sacred images. He always referred to his friends as angels. And I think he was really recording pictures of angels, just like Botticelli would do.
SIEGEL: The exhibition takes us through the years. We see a dynamic 1950s Beat Generation slip into old age. Beards grow, old friends vanish, new ones emerge. Mostly, we see the poetry of Allen Ginsberg's life, the poetic way in which he saw the world, how an artist crafted that vision into words and photographs.
Claire O'Neill, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.