Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Photography of Allen Ginsberg at University of Toronto

  Having long romanticized the lives of Jack Kerouac and company, I was eager to see Allen Ginsberg speak at Convocation Hall, in the late fall of 1996. Media personality, Sook-Yin Lee introduced Ginsberg with a flourish. She recalled early exposure to his work, coinciding with an unfortunate exposure to horses, which left her (and her friend?) with hives, after they read Howl and ran through a field at night, tripping on LSD. Many of us had likely attempted to reproduce some parodic microcosm of Beat life, in which cosmic ecstasy is abruptly eschewed by earthly abrasion.  Bathos, being the hallmark of the grand existential comedy, the audience laughed heartily at Lee’s anecdote.

Ginsberg performed several of his poems with the accompaniment of bongos. He offered soft-spoken wonderment of Neal Cassady’s youthful form. In one piece, he insisted: “Don’t smoke. Don’t smoke. It’s a government joke. Stay in bed. Give your boyfriend head.” He was nothing, if not a lifelong rhymer. And, he performed “Tiger, Tiger …” in homage to the ecclesiastic energy of that historical rhymer, William Blake, who had—by Ginsberg’s account—once inhabited his being.

During the Q&A, someone asked him what he thought of Bob Dylan allowing Bank of Montreal to use The Times They Are a Changin’ in a television commercial.  Ginsberg said he would have to see the commercial, and noted that, an image of Kerouac had recently been used to promote GAP khakis. I had no scorn for Dylan as a sell-out. I loved him too much.  Further, he never really specifies in which direction the times will change, only that they always will. Perhaps I was disappointed at Ginsberg’s reluctance to mark capitalism as an impediment to the ideals of enlightenment he expounded upon.  Mainly, I think it was the first time I consciously mulled the relationship between art and commerce, from a philosophical point of view.

Someone asked Ginsberg to the El Macambo, after the show.  He politely declined, saying he was now old and easily tired. That he had to point out the fact, was a testament to the seemingly endless, transmutable energy he possessed in relation to art as a duty and life as an act.  In actuality, Ginsberg lived less than five months, from the day of that performance.

When the show ended, my friend Kevin and I were too cool to line-up for an autograph. We walked the broken paths around UC, dissecting the evening’s events. At one point, I closed my eyes and saw bright flashes of light, over a memory of wallpaper. At the time, I wasn’t sure if Ginsberg had inspired my own acid flashback, or if it was low blood pressure accompanying a visual association.  It was a consideration I revisited last month. Walking into the cloistered loop of display cases at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library to view, Fleeting Moments, Floating Worlds, and the Beat Generation: The Photography of Allen Ginsberg, “Photo 39immediately caught my eye.

The focal point of  Case Six, is a 14 x 11, silver gelatin print of Burroughs, dukes raised in a boxer’s pose. Ginsberg’s cursive caption reads: “William S Burroughs at kitchen table next to typewriter getting into condition to edit his South American letters. We slept in rear, wallpaper’d, small bedroom with wooden wardrobe, visible behind left shoulder, Fall 1953.”
            
All of the photos in the exhibit are numerically labelled, with white numbers pressed into small, black, plastic squares. The tabs have a retro aesthetic, and struck me as particularly appropriate in the case dedicated to Burroughs. His grandfather made the family a fortune with the invention of an adding machine. Much of Burroughs’ writing is punctuated with numerical riffs—dates, weights, measurements—highlighting human alienation at the mercy of data.

Burrough’s looks surprisingly at ease in Photo 39. His facial expression relatively relaxed. Even the slight nod to a violent stance in this picture, brought Burroughs’ notorious deeds to mind.  In 1951, he shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer.  Initially, he claimed they were trying to recreate the act of William Tell, who was said to have shot an apple off his son’s head. Later, however, Burroughs would say the gun fired accidentally, as it was dropped.  He escaped prosecution on this charge by fleeing Mexico. 
            
My friend had once given me a cassette recording of Burrough’s spoken word compilation, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales.  I remember listening to it in my grandmother’s living room:
            
When I became captain of the town, I decided to extend asylum to certain citizens who   were persona non-grata elsewhere in the area because of their disgusting and disquieting  deformities. One was known as Spare Ass Annie. She had an auxiliary asshole in the  middle of her forehead, like a baneful bronze eye.” (Burroughs, Spare Ass Annie)

  Burroughs “voice” was equal parts appealing/appalling. In the small town universe I traversed, he would have been considered a dirty old man.  My feelings towards him were
mixed. I admired his ability to say anything without fear of reproach. But he didn’t have Kerouac’s, "Aww-shucks-ecstasy", nor Ginsberg’s gentler, observational approach. And, I could never fully forgive the notion that he’d murdered a woman. As a woman, it made me afraid.  

I remember Kevin telling me Burroughs had said something to the effect that, he had 
delivered himself to hell and the only way to fight his way out of it was through writing. This memory struck me hard upon seeing Photo 39. When I searched for the exact quote online, I was somewhat relieved to find he was making specific reference to Vollmer’s death:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realisation of the extent to which this event has motivated and  formulated my writing... The death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the  Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a life-long struggle, in which I had no choice except  to write my way out. (The Guardian)
           
Seeing photo 39 raised a tremendous many ethical questions in my mind. From rekindling the anxiety I had previously faced, in reconciling with Burroughs’ as both a poet and a killer, to reconsidering the notion of the privilege of fringe life. Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg may have been marginalized due to drug use or their sexuality, nonetheless they were afforded some semblance of upward mobility in society. Their work though it may be critical of society, often shows wide parameters of access.

In the spirit of gaining new insight, I contacted the exhibition’s curator, John Shoesmith.

He was kind enough to provide insightful answers to my questions.  

Below is our exchange:

John,
I guess it will be easier just to send you the questions at this point. Thanks so much!! I  really enjoyed the exhibit. I’m writing on photo 39, the Burroughs photo, of him looking  feisty with fists up at the typewriter. Are there any specific details you could share about  it? Did it come to you framed? What themes or questions did you have in mind, when presenting the exhibit? What were  your thoughts in isolating those Burroughs photos, from the ones in which he is with Kerouac? Was that to highlight the prominence of Burroughs in Ginsberg’s life? Or was there more to it?
Did you ever consider organizing the exhibit around the theme of madness? Or  something more political? Do you feel an obligation to only present archival material in a  relatively innocuous light, when it is received as a gift? Do you prefer impartial  presentations, that let the viewer draw their own conclusions?
 I ask this because I went to see the Outsiders exhibit at the AGO, several times. Due to  the manner in which they presented the material, I began to see the Beats through a new lens.
 They played “Pull My Daisy” right near the entrance of the Gordon Park pictures from  Life magazine, depicting the trials of a poor family, struggling to survive as African  Americans, in Harlem. That, coupled with this dramatic, ecclesiastic Beat footage, had  me questioning the privilege of this fringe mentality.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Beats. I just think there are so many potential political and social juxtapositions, and I am curious as to your thoughts in this regard, as  you also obviously admire their work. Any thoughts you have, on any of these points would be greatly appreciated.
Whatever questions you feel are relevant to your experience with the material would be  great.
            
Thanks again,
            Alyson

Shoesmith’s reply is as follows:
            

First off, I'm glad you enjoyed the exhibition. It was such a large undertaking, but    thankfully I had a research leave last year that really enabled me to get into a "deep think" about how I wanted to go about displaying the photographs (along with doing a ton of        reading about Ginsberg and the Beats in general). The Fisher holds over 7500 Ginsberg prints, so distilling that to around 100 for exhibition purposes was not easy. (And even  now, I'm regretting some photos I didn't use, such as a fantastic photo of Diane Di Prima,   and one of a young Ai Weiwei, both from the 1980s.) I think it's inevitable that a curator will have second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) thoughts about items they've chosen for  display - and items left out. But in the end you have to make your peace with it, and  thankfully the reactions I'm getting to the exhibition are almost all positive.
As for that Burroughs photo, it didn't arrive here framed. That's one we borrowed from  the Art Museum of the University of Toronto, so our conservator (who mounts the  exhibitions) framed all of the captioned ones herself. When we received the donation of  the Ginsberg photos back in 2013, we gave all the captioned ones (around 270) to the Art  Museum (then the University of Toronto Arts Centre), a decision that I don't think was  the best one. It was reasoned that those captioned photographs were more "artistic" in  nature, and thus would be better off in terms of preservation in the hands of an art gallery.   My issue with that is, unless those photographs are part of an exhibition, they are   essentially "buried" to researchers. They have had them digitized, but to me that is only a     surrogate and not a replacement for the "real thing." As it is, I borrowed 12 of the captioned ones for the exhibition: eight to be used in the cases upstairs as a means to  represent or introduce the "theme" of each case, and an additional four to be used in the   Maclean Hunter Room on the library's first floor.
But specifically on that Burroughs photo, it's one of my favourites in the collection, and  one I knew right from the beginning that I would use it. Specifically, I wanted to "pair it"  with the photo of Burroughs taken almost 40 years later where he's wearing only a towel,  to contrast the young body vs the old. (I did a few pairings like that in this exhibition,   which I hope people picked up on.) There's so much about that image that I like. It's  playful, for one, which is not something you see often in Burroughs. It attests to the  natural ease of the friendship between Burroughs and Ginsberg as well since it's such an  intimate photo. (There's another one in the collection, of Burroughs on the bed, where I  think Ginsberg writes that he and Burroughs had just had sex prior to him snapping a       photo.) I thought it was important that I singled out Burroughs for his own case since he's  so important to Ginsberg's life, both personally and professionally. They truly loved each    other, even though the physical intimacy of their relationship ended around the time that  photo was taken. Burroughs was a teacher to Ginsberg in many ways, recommending   books for one, but Ginsberg was important to Burroughs as well since he encouraged   Burroughs to write (and acted as his literary agent and sold Junkie to Ace Books).  Because of the arc of their relationship lasted so long - Ginsberg would visit Burroughs at   least once a year - and also because it's well captured by Ginsberg's camera, I felt he was   deserving of his own themed case. It's great to see how Burroughs aged through the gaze  of Ginsberg's lens.

It's interesting to speculate on the different ways I could have presented this exhibition. I     had hoped to tell some type of story about Ginsberg, but also tell a larger story about the  Beats and Ginsberg's role in the movement. I also wanted it to appeal to a general  audience as not everybody that visits will be familiar with Ginsberg. They may have heard of Howl and they would recognize Jack Keroauc's name, but I didn’t to make it   exclusively for those that come with a lot of knowledge about the Beats. I wouldn't necessarily use the word "innocuous" (!), but we do try to strike a balance between providing historical context for those that may not know the topic well, yet also provide a    bit more "meat on the bone" for those that will come armed with more knowledge on the  topic. In terms of this exhibition, I felt it necessary to display images that some people   will already be familiar with (Kerouac on the fire escape stairs, Burroughs and Kerouac  play fighting in the apartment, Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson under the movie   marquee in San Francisco), while also having photos that are far-less familiar. Portraits of   Bono, Beck and Paul and Linda McCartney, for example. I had intended to include a   couple of erotic photos that Ginsberg took in the late 1980s and into the 1990s - I had   picked out two, but for space considerations I only used one (of two men in bed kissing).   There's a lot of nude Ginsberg on display of course in the Maclean Hunter Room!
 So yes, all that is to stay that one could have curated a show that was more political or  touched on social issues, but this is our first time displaying these photographs. As such,  I  thought doing something more general was the route to take.
The first time I saw Pull My Daisy was at that AGO show, and I absolutely loved it. (And of course Robert Frank played a crucial role for Ginsberg when he "rediscovered"  photography in the mid-1980s.) My intention was to have the film available on the iPads  in the exhibition area, but I was a little worried about copyright issues. I do have the  "book version" on display however!


                                                



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