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Allen Ginsberg photos recall Beat generation

A photo of U.S. poet Ginsberg taken by his friend William Burroughs.

NEW YORK: The writers of the Beat Generation, who shocked America with their bohemian lifestyles and upended literature half a century ago, are celebrated in a new photo exhibition by one of their most famous members, Allen Ginsberg.

The New York exhibition, “Beat Memories, the photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” comes just after the release of the movie “On the Road,” which has received generally good reviews for its dramatization of Jack Kerouac’s famous 1957 book of the same name.

More than 80 black-and-white pictures housed at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery uniquely capture the Beatniks, as they were known, who espoused innovative literary styles, free love, drug-taking, and rejected accepted U.S. social values.

All the movement’s main figures star in the collection, including Kerouac, “Naked Lunch” author William Burroughs, and the lesser known Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. There’s also Neal Cassady, inspiration for one of the main characters of “On the Road.”

“Without even intending it, there is that little shiver of a moment in time preserved in the crystal cabinet of the mind,” Ginsberg said of his photographic mission.

“A little shiver of eternal space. That’s what I was looking for.”

Author of the iconic poem “Howl,” Ginsberg died in 1997.

Featured heavily in the snapshots are the lower Manhattan neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, East Village and the Lower East Side – all counter-culture hotbeds and artistic havens until their relatively recent gentrification.

“Many were taken within walking distance of Greenwich Village, which holds countless favored Beat haunts,” said Lynn Gumpert, director of the NYU gallery, which itself is located in the Village. “Exhibiting ‘Beat Memories’ at the Grey Art Gallery displays these captivating works nearly next door to their original settings.”

In addition to the exhibit, the gallery is offering a downloadable self-guided tour of the area and a formal tour, which is already booked out, for April.

The photos capture the wanderings of the tight-knit group. The Beatniks were most associated with New York and San Francisco, but the movement was also centered in the so-called Beat Hotel in Paris, where the writers escaped the censorship at home, and in the Moroccan port of Tangier, where novelist Paul Bowles lived, as well as, for a time, Burroughs.

The pictures were taken in two distinct periods: from the Beats’ heyday in 1953-1963 and then 1980-1990, when musicians Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and pop star Madonna come into the frame.

Ginsberg sought to capture his world right to the end, with intimate photos of hotels in Eastern Europe and in his own East Village apartment.

“Beat Memories, the photographs of Allen Ginsberg” is up at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery through to April 6 and will head to San Francisco in May.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2013, on page 16.

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