“He looked by that time like his father, red-faced corpulent W.C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror…” Thus reads the inscription of a photo depicting American icon Jack Kerouac and taken by Allen Ginsberg in 1964 — just a few years before the former’s death. Far from the exuberant youth depicted in earlier photos, this portrait offers an entirely different image of Kerouac: that of the aging alcoholic, slumped dejectedly in a battered armchair.
This captivating photograph is one of the many snapshots included in “Beat Memories,” an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco featuring the photographs taken by American poet and leading Beat figure Allen Ginsberg. While primarily celebrated for his poetry and social activism, Ginsberg also visually documented the characters of the Beat Generation, a collection of writers and artists active in the aftermath of World War II who advocated for radically new ways of living in the decade between 1953 and 1963. These photographs and negatives were largely neglected until the 1980s, when Ginsberg was encouraged by photographers Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott to revisit them. At that time, Ginsberg reprinted many of the photos, added inscriptions and began taking new photos of the remaining “Beats.”
Besides Kerouac, other well-known figures featured in the photographs include William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Robert LaVigne, Bob Dylan and others (the lack of prominent female figures within the Beat Generation is one thing that, perhaps inadvertently, stands out in this exhibit). Some, such as Kerouac and Burroughs, appear in several images — a testament to their intimate relationship to Ginsberg — whereas others make a more fleeting impression. The real heart and nerve of the exhibit lies in the contrast between the earlier and later photos. The spontaneous photographs taken in the early 50s show Kerouac, Burroughs and Cassady in their prime — youthful, radiating and smiling. Flash forward just a decade later, and you get the haunting photo of Kerouac described above: an image of a defeated man.
The gritty backdrop provided by the urban environments of New York City and San Francisco reinforces the strength of the photographs. On that note, as Ginsberg’s captions detail the location of each photo, and for anyone familiarized with either city, the exhibit is a great opportunity to get a feel for what various neighborhoods were like midcentury. Especially mind-boggling are Ginsberg’s notations of the amount of rent paid for his different apartments at the time — two-digit figures that seem like a surreal joke when compared to the ridiculously rent-inflated situation of today. Interestingly, the vibe emanating from the setting alters according to the time frame. In the earlier photos featuring the lively and seemingly carefree Beats, the environments captured by Ginsberg seem charmingly rugged. In the later photos, however, one can’t help but feel that New York and San Francisco seem like quite melancholy and dilapidated places to be.
Finally, as a positive surprise, the exhibit offers more than just images of members of the Beat Generation. For instance, a series of intriguing photos chronicle Ginsberg’s extended travels throughout the world, shot in places as varied as Morocco, Russia, Japan and India. Even more powerful are the handful of photos taken of Ginsberg’s extended family, such as the touching image of his paternal grandmother, Rebecca Ginsberg, in the midst of Seder preparations — or the photo of his uncle Abe Ginsberg raising his hand to wave at the camera from his deathbed. These photographs move beyond capturing Ginsberg’s various relationships to his fellow Beats to offering a glimpse as to his family situation and Jewish identity.