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'Beat Memories' at the National Gallery: Photography review by Philip Kennicott

There is more to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg than "Howl." The National Gallery of Art displays 79 of the literary legend's photographs, including portraits of other well-known writers.

"Jack Kerouac the last time he visited my apartment," wrote Ginsberg on the photo, which shows the writer slumped in a chair with a haggard face. "He looked by then like his late father, red-faced corpulent W.C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror."

Those inscriptions, inspired by advice Ginsberg sought from photographer Berenice Abbott, are essential to the power of Ginsberg's photography. They are written in the same unpunctuated rhythms of his poetry, and they connect the details of the photographs to the long lists and relentlessly noticing eye of Ginsberg's best written work.

In a catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition, curator Sarah Greenough quotes extensively from Ginsberg's somewhat belated efforts to theorize a connection between his poems and his photographs: "Ginsberg asserted that both the poet and the photographer must deal with 'directly visible objects' and must 'get into contact with the minute particular details of the culture: the street, the people, their dress, clothes, and gestures.' "

Of course, Ginsberg also fancied himself a musician and songwriter, but that self-delusion resulted in reams of his worst work. Was he any good as a photographer?

Robert Frank, the Swiss American photographer whose "The Americans" was seen at the National Gallery last year, thought Ginsberg good enough to encourage him and connected him with printers who definitely made Ginsberg's images stronger. The exhibition includes original snapshots from the 1950s, when Ginsberg was an amateur with a good eye. Some of them were reprinted decades later, and these versions are sharper in every way.

Ginsberg rediscovered his early snapshots in the 1980s, and he returned to photography with an even deeper sense of self-consciousness and symbolism. His later photographs play with mortality ever more theatrically, including one of a young male fan, asleep in Ginsberg's apartment. The boy looks like a corpse.

A series of images of an empty courtyard, taken through the window of Ginsberg's apartment, suggest the increasingly confined and sentimental tendencies of old age, and a self-portrait, made with a mirror, shows the elderly and now paunchy writer looking tired from the still heavy schedule of touring and reading he maintained late in his life.

Unfortunately, this exhibition, billed as the first scholarly assessment of Ginsberg's work, doesn't really assess his work, unless you assume that the imprimatur of a National Gallery show is proof enough that the work is good.

Few of the photos hold up against, say, the work of Robert Frank. Their primary interests are the people they capture and the insight they offer into Ginsberg's poetic thinking. It's hard not to be moved by images of bright, creative people, captured in youth and again late in life. There's a built-in drama to that juxtaposition, to which Ginsberg adds some moody nuance.

But is that enough to make it great work? Debatable, just like Ginsberg's larger legacy, poetic, musical, intellectual and cultural.


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