Some students and hangers-on around the Barnard/Columbia campus back when I was an undergraduate there, in the 1950s, were--in retrospect--would- be beats. A lot of them frequented the West End Bar on Broadway, where Ginsberg & his friends had hung out a decade earlier, and I wanted as little as possible to do with any of these latter-day people.
They seemed more distinguished for their lifestyles than for their art, with untidy hair and what I suspected were untidy sex lives. I’d had more than enough of that in my own family--so I was all into neat hair and what I hoped would be a highly tidy sex life. I was planning on a totally monagamous relationship with a loving husband who had a secure job in one of the professions and would support me and our children (God, how long ago that seems).
However, this winter I’ve been hearing a lot about photography, so I took in the Ginsberg show and found it delightful. Originally organized by Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery of Art, it is comprised of 94 black-and-white photographs; as shown at NYU, these are accompanied by quantities of manuscripts, published books, and other memorabilia in vitrines.
About two-thirds of the photos were taken in the later 1940s and early- to mid-1950s.They portray Ginsberg (1926-1997) and a number of his Beat colleagues in surroundings that begin in Greenwich Village, the East Village and Morningside Heights, then follow Ginsberg & his buddies on their travels as they migrate restlessly to San Francisco, Paris, Tangier, India, Timothy Leary’s drug farm in upstate New York, and other ports of call.
These photographs are the most spontaneous kind of snapshot, showing individuals and groups of people posing for (and often smirking at) the camera, in and out of various stages of dress (and undress). They clearly required a minimum of technique on the part of the photographer, and for that very reason are endowed with lots of very fresh and informal, if admittedly somewhat amateurish charm.
The especially moving smaller pictures on view were mostly taken originally by Ginsberg or one of his Beat friends with a Kodak Retina that Ginsberg had picked up for $13 in a pawn shop. An additional number on view are enlargements of such pictures, made in the 1980s, and embellished by Ginsberg with lengthy & illuminating handwritten captions describing when and when the pictures were taken, plus other inside details, such as what the subjects were writing or publishing at that instant.
The final third of the show consists of photographs (both snapshots & blow-ups) from the 1980s & 1990s, chronicling mostly older celebrities (like Bob Dylan and Larry Rivers) whom Ginsberg was hobnobbing with in his old age. For me, this was the least interesting part of the show.
What I really went for was the earlier photos, when the author of “Howl” (written 1955, published 1956) was still young and even reasonably handsome, as were his leading fellow Beats, Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), author of On the Road (written 1951, published 1957), and William Burroughs (1914-1997), author of Naked Lunch (written 1958, published 1959).
Along the way, the photos also take in some of the fellow artistes who shared the lives and unconventional activities of these three figures—among them Gregory Corso (1930-2001), the poet , Robert LaVigne (1928-), the San Francisco painter, Neal Cassady (1926-1968), who served as the model for one of the central characters in On the Road, and especially Peter Orlofsky (1933-2010), sometime poet and Ginsberg’s partner for the last four decades of his life.
What you don’t find are all the women who were members of the Beats’ circle—not, perhaps, too surprisingly, given how many of the Beats were gay, including (almost always) Ginsberg himself and (mostly) Burroughs. Out of those 94 photographs, only nine show women – and only four of those show members of the group with lady friends (the rest being members of Ginsberg's or Orlofsky's families, or celebrities met up with in Ginsberg's old age).
Nowhere do we see either of Burroughs’ wives (the first may have been out of the scene by the time he met Ginsberg, but the second was shot in the head by Burroughs in 1951, and killed). We don’t see any of Kerouac’s three wives, or any of his ladyfriends, though at least two of these women in Kerouac's life were writers themselves--nor do we see Elise Cowen, a Barnard student & poet with whom Ginsberg had what Wikipedia calls “a romantic involvement” prior to his meeting up with Orlofsky (and despite what also seems to have been a sometime physical relationship with Burroughs).
Only one picture shows Lucien Carr (1925-2005), although Carr was a central figure in the original group. A fellow Columbia student of Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s, he introduced Ginsberg to Kerouac, Burroughs—and Rimbaud. But Carr got into trouble in 1944 by stabbing (and killing) an older stalker (friend of Burroughs) who had been following him for years and tried to make homosexual advances.
Carr served two years in jail, and, when he came out, chose a less creative but more settled form of existence. He started out as a copy boy in 1946 with United Press, the newswire service (now UPI), rose to become an editor and retired only in 1993, as well as getting married (twice), and begetting three sons, all of whom outlived him and one of whom (Caleb) became a best-selling author.
I don’t know who’s responsible for these omissions, nor does it matter—except that if any NYU student is thinking she can put together a term paper based on this show, she should know that she’s getting a very artistic but (by the same token) somewhat selective presentation of the history of the Beats, and do her best to fill in the lacunae – via Wikipedia, at the very least.
A version of this show has already appeared in Washington, and will also be at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (May 23- September 9).
A MORE MODERN VIEW
The Beats, with a lifestyle that sometimes bordered upon performance art, and their often discontinuous literary narratives, can be seen as contemporaries and fellow thinkers of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns & especially Rivers. This made them postmodernists avant la lettre, and by the same token representative of an outlook that dominates the artistic outlook today of the New York neighborhoods that the Beats frequented in the early 50s, especially the East Village.
To be truly radical in such surroundings today is to be modern as opposed to postmodern, celebrating elegance and tranquility instead of twitchiness and mess. And, at a gathering of the tribes, that sterling gallery created by Steve Cannon, is currently on view a truly radical, which is to say truly modern, exhibition of photographs by Eugene Hyon, titled “Fire Escapes, Rooftops & Waterfronts,” (through February 2).
Hyon, a native of New York City whose day job is as an editorial freelancer, learned photography from his father, an outgoing Korean-American who specialized in fashion, industrial and commercial photography. The younger Hyon is shyer & more retiring, whose work came to Cannon’s attention only through the intervention of a mutual friend, the poet and author Susan Scutti. The photographs in this show perfectly express their creator’s calm yet seasoned outlook: they capture peaceful, untrammeled views and moments in our monster metropolitan area.
In their stillness, and their admiration for their urban subjects, they are part of the great tradition that began with Eugène Atget in the late 19th century, and Berenice Abbott in the early 20th, continuing on through such latter-day practitioners as Philip Trager (b. 1935), whose similarly black-and-white photographs of Connecticut frame houses and New York City landmarks, taken between 1967 and 1983, are currently on view at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library.
Hyon, however, differs from these three in that their most famous work captures views of their subject presented to the public: shop fronts, building facades and public streets. The photos at Tribes, by contract, mostly go behind these fronts and offer views not ordinarily seen: rooftops, fire escapes (and their shadows) either on the backs of buildings or seen from a bird’s-eye view, air shafts in the backs of tenements, piers seemingly abandoned. The architecture is clearly a large part of their subjects’ appeal for the photographer, for the camera has lingered upon classic verticals and horizontals, regardless of the age of the edifice, or how well it is preserved.
These views speak of the present, but they are still in black-and-white, a rigorous color scheme not much used by postmodernist impresario-photographers like Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth (they prefer a full range of soft and flabby colors). Hyon’s pictures are also frequently tinted with sepia, which adds to the long-ago and far-away effect, although one winter scene is tinted blue, and a storm scene, with purple, to dramatize the harshness of the elements. Whatever the subject, the loving way in which it is treated adds to its esthetic quality.
TWO CONCERNED PHOTOGRAPHERS
Two more photography exhibitions worthy of contemplation are at the International Center of Photography. Both return that fine institution to its origins, as it was founded by Cornell Capa to preserve the great tradition of concerned photography—which is to say, primarily documentary as opposed to art photography, photographs of people making history in one way or another. Often such undertakings have become fodder for the media, as photojournalism—often, but not always, as these two shows attest.
The two shows at the ICP honor two memorable photographers whose contributions were both made in Europe, primarily in the turbulent 1930s and 1940s, and despite the fact that both were Jews (not the best thing to be in central Europe during those decades). The two shows are “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” organized by Maya Benton, and “We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956 by Chim,” organized by Cynthia Young (both shows through May 5). While occasionally these two photographers covered the same territory (specifically, Berlin at the end of World War II and the plight of displaced persons all over Europe during this period), they approach it in two very different ways, which might be summarized as depth as opposed to breadth.
Chim, who was born in 1911 in Warsaw, and was also known as David Seymour, is the one I associate with breadth, for his photographs document many different historical place and moments. They begin with the Front Populaire in France, when that country’s leftists (Socialists and Communists) attempted to govern together (with little success, alas). After that, Chim took on the Civil War in Spain (where the wrong side won). During World War II, he worked in the military, with aerial reconnaissance. After the war, he returned to photojournalism to document (among other developments) the rebuilding of Italy and resettling of Israel (he’d become famous enough by that time to also be able to “document” the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Fred Astaire). He was killed in Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956, but the record he left of those crucial decades exemplifies the best of photojournalism. All of his pictures tell a story, and it’s clear to see how easily they fitted in to the pages of the many picture magazines to which he contributed and which are handsomely displayed in vitrines.
Vishniac is the one I associate with depth. Born in 1897 to a wealthy Russian family, he emigrated to Berlin in1920. The earliest photographs in this exhibition portray the everyday life of Berliners, followed by more disturbing scenes showing Nazi swastikas insinuating themselves into backgrounds. In the mid-30s,Vishniac was commissioned by a Jewish relief organization to document the lives of Eastern European Jews, and this became his grand obsession—as they were suffering already, before the war, from Polish and Hungarian anti-Semitism. Even more poignant are pictures showing German Jews struggling to accommodate themselves to the increasing Nazi presence — most notably, in a camp in The Netherlands where sons of professionals and merchants were being trained to agrarian and engineering occupations because so many host countries wouldn’t accept immigrants without such credentials. Watching these young people on the brink of disaster, I wanted to scream, ”GET OUT OF THERE—JUST GET OUT!”
Vishniac inundated himself in this world. His pictures rarely document events of historical moment, nor do they have the knowing immediacy of Chim’s photojournalism. Rather, Vishniac took many, many pictures of children or families without particular “significance.” It’s almost as though he often set up shop on street corners or suchlike & photographed everybody who walked by. Sometimes he scored big with this casual technique, but sometimes it doesn’t pay off so well. After passing through France in 1939, he came to the US in 1941, opened a portrait studio & made technological experiments (dying in 1990). Most of this later material could have been omitted—the show is far too large. But the children in its pictures are particularly sweet. When Chim was killed, Life did a spread celebrating his photographs of children, and for the current show, I note that Ken Johnson, in the NY Times, for January 27, has taken a similar tack. Certainly, Chim’s children are touching, too, but this is a trait he shares with Vishniac.