New York Photobooks

About photobooks – old and new.

Allen Ginsberg – Photographs


Allen Ginsberg

Published by Twelvetress Press, 1990

Folio, gray cloth with printed dust jacket

Edition of 5000


Allen Ginsberg

Published by Twelvetress Press, 1990

Folio, gray cloth with printed dust jacket

Edition of 5000

Allen Ginsberg’s photobook gathers a series of snapshots from his friends, many of whom would become iconoclast figures of the beat generation: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Robert Frank, Neal Cassady, Paul Bowles, just to mention a few. Many of these photos were taken in the East Village, in the 1950’s, predating the fame of the beat generation.

In the meantime, some of these photos became quite well known, such as the picture of Kerouac smoking on a fire escape outside Ginsberg’s apartment in the East Village, taken in 1953. There is also the famous scene of Burroughs and Kerouac play-fighting with a maroccan dagger on Ginsberg’s couch, just when Burroughs was editing Yage Letters. The casual nature of these snapshots suggests that Ginsberg didn’t have any particular ambition with these photos, besides recording intimate moments between a group of close friends. Or as Ginsberg describes in the foreword of this book, the purpose of the photos was to record “certain moments in eternity with a sense of sacramental presence”.

Independently of  Ginsberg’s original intention for his photos, the most intriguing question relates to the publication of this photobook almost four decades later. A cynical interpretation of this anachronism is to consider that Ginsberg and several other Beat artists ended up compromising with comercial interests, unfaithful to their subversive and marginal tradition. They took advantage of their historical importance, behaving more as mainstream celebrity icons and responding to the market demand.

Another argument is to consider that Ginsberg’s approach to photography anticipated the popularity of the diaristic style, which would become a lot more in vogue in the postmodern era (in the 1980’s and later), justifying only then the publication of such photobook. The success of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark are good examples of a  more propitious cultural context for photographers using a diaristic style to document their own life and the intimacy of their friends.

One of the most innovative aspects of Ginsberg’s photobook is his extensive use of handwritten captions describing the context of each picture. They also point to specific details, inviting the reader to observe the photos more carefully. There are several versions of these captions for each photo, as Ginsberg decided to write them directly on each print, allowing for spontaneous changes and re-introducing an authenticity and subjectivity to the composition photo/text. For instance, there were more than forty different captions for the photograph of Kerouac on the fire escape.The book, however, does not provide the reader with such diversity of captions, as only one version per image was retained for the photobook.

The mixed-media technique, also quite in vogue in the postmodern era, transforms the photos into art, and the author into a poet-photographer as well argued by Oliver Harris in a paper “Minute Particulars of the Counter-Culture: Time, Life, and the Photo-poetics of Allen Ginsberg”. As discussed by Harris, the captions also reintroduce a contemporaneity to the pictures, by telling a new story, which keeps changing as much as Ginsberg rewrites it and represents it under a different light. In this perspective, Ginsberg remains truthful to a beat prerequisite of refuting the logic of mass production. Since each print has its unique caption, the print itself becomes unique. The hybrid technique of mixing image and text also deconstructs the common idea that a picture is worth a thousand words.

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This entry was posted on December 21, 2016 by in Me, my friends and my people, New York photobooks.
December 2016

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