Allen Ginsberg takes photographs, too. He takes them of exactly the same people he writes his poems about.
They're his friends, his lovers, his literary co-conspirators with their muse-addled faces: Jack Kerouac, that stunningly handsome and foolish novelist; William Burroughs poignantly sinister as he stares directly at the camera; Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg's chronically startled companion of decades; Neal Cassady as jaunty sidewalk saint of hipsterism; Herbert Huncke with his face of rococo junkie pulp . . .
These were the best minds of the generation Ginsberg wrote "Howl" about, and they're the stars of the 50 photographs he's got on the walls of Middendorf Gallery, at 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, through May 4.
Ginsberg isn't a bad photographer, but it's hard to tell just how good he is because history gets in the way of esthetic judgment.
"We are a legend, invisible but legendary as prophecied sic ," Ginsberg writes beneath a picture of Neal Cassady standing in front of a movie theater in San Francisco in 1955. Cassady was the charming motormouth street kid who became the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's "On the Road" and hero of other Beat novels and poems. Once you know that, the photograph becomes historical artifact.
So are all these photographs. So are Ginsberg's poems. As part of his rejection of modernism, Ginsberg embraced the commemorative and the historical. No wonder, then, that when he picked up the variety of cameras that made these pictures, he also embraced portraiture, another esthetic that modernism never really assimilated.
Then again, the technique here is full of authenticity, that sine qua non of 20th-century art. The prints are grainy, spotted, unfocused and ill-lit. The mode is the snapshot, from a beach in Tangiers to littered apartments across America. O spontaneity! On the other hand, no man seems to have posed more carefully than Kerouac (he seemed to prefer his right profile) and Ginsberg composes with some care. Also, in that picture of Ginsberg's San Fransciso apartment, around the time that he was writing "Howl," is that cardboard burning in the fireplace? Did he light a fire just for effect? Is that why he didn't make the bed?
Well, no point in arguing the esthetics. Or history. What you get here is that gritty-unto-grotesque view of life that Ginsberg and the Beats gave us in all their humor, fervor, faith, honesty, childishness, self-consciousness and love. "Hideous Human Angels," Ginsberg calls this show. It's as good a three-word poem about life as he's apt to give us.
Downstairs at Middendorf are more artifacts -- sculpture and drawings by earthworks and conceptual artist Robert Smithson, who built the spiral jetty in Great Salt Lake. Smithson died in a plane crash while checking out sites for a new piece, thus attaining a martyrdom in the art world, like Jackson Pollock and David Smith. Here are the relics: a drawing of the spiral jetty, pieces of slate with arcs cut in them, a pile of rock salt with a box of mirrors embedded in the summit, and a spiral of rough cardboard transfixed with twigs. This is a show for believers and historians. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 6, Saturday 11 to 5. Barbara Crane's Photographs
Barbara Crane is a Chicago photographer who has spent 30 years rampaging though one style after another: pictures of found objects, wide-angle monstrosities, captured moments, collages, social documentation and so on. So she has no style, in the conventional sense. What she has is impact. Her eclecticism is willful and muscular, and she always seems to be ramming the picture right into your face.
In this show at Jones Troyer Gallery, 1614 20th St. NW, Crane has taken the Polaroid process and turned it on its ear. The process has long been celebrated for having no grain -- the specks that compose images made with conventional film. But if you shoot a little tiny Polaroid slide and blow it up to a huge Polaroid print, you get -- aha! -- lines of colored specks called rasters.
The subjects are conventional -- berries on a vine, a wedding party, a city garden -- but the Polaroid reversal is only the first of the esthetic body slams she subjects us to. In "Ithaca Leaves and Berries," for instance, she shoots into the sun while illuminating the front of her back-lit berries with a flash, thus pushing the film and our eye beyond expectations.
She's also fond of shooting cityscapes that turn conventions into monstrosities.
In front of a building or a wedding party she'll provide a foreground of flowers.
Is this a pun on all those old pictures of, say, the Jefferson Memorial with the cherry-blossomed bough dangling in the top right corner? In any case, the flowers are huge and blurred, a kind of logical distortion of the sort of composition that insists on fore-, middle- and background. In one photograph she gets both the foreground and background out of focus, with a small piece of the middle ground, a garden, in focus. Most disconcerting. In some smaller, more recent work, she's taken to shooting so close to flowers that they register in prints as vague blanks, as if some chemical was spilled on the printing paper.
The gallery is open from Wednesday to Saturday, 11 to 6.