The handwrtitten caption reads, "Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel 'Sunset' Cox, 'The Letter-Carrier's Friend' in Tompkins Square toward corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side; he's making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om, first walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pockets, Fall 1953, Manhattan. Allen Ginsberg"
By Edmund White, The New York Review of Books
Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs discovered late in life that making works of art is the way to get money. Literature just doesn’t do it. Speaking engagements pay, but eventually they become tiring—or one exhausts the market. Neither of the two had ever been money-mad, but old age requires a bit of a cushion. Burroughs turned to painting. He would set up paint cans in front of blank canvases and then shoot at them; the splatter was the art. Although these paintings are his best-known artworks, they make up only a small part of his output: he did twenty-four shotgun paintings in 1982 and a few more before he died in 1997. According to his friend James Grauerholz, Burroughs turned out more than 1,500 artworks between 1982 and 1996—including stencils and targets, which were almost all brightly colored abstractions—and had his work exhibited in several museums and more than eighty galleries worldwide.
As Ginsberg said:
If you’re famous, you can get away with anything! William Burroughs spent the last ten years painting, and makes a lot more money out of his painting than he does out of his previous writing. If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I’m lucky.
Ginsberg had been taking snapshots of friends with a borrowed camera since the mid-1940s. In 1953 he bought a small Kodak Retina camera for $13 secondhand at a Bowery pawnshop, and for the next ten years he photographed all his friends and activities in a casual, spontaneous way...
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "Ginsburg (with whom I once had a protracted conversation shortly before he was arrested during a 1972 political convention in Miami, and shorter chats a couple of times) was really a pretty mellow guy, and not a bad poet, either. But, like most poets, he had to hustle for a living, and he did, and I don't blame him for doing it—even poets have to eat. Saying that his photos aren't so good is like saying Matthew Brady's photos of the Civil War weren't so good (and often not even Brady's)—but hey, they weren't making art, they were documenting history. Nothing wrong with that."
Featured Comment by Sporobolus: "Knowing Ginsberg's poetry, and having seen him perform it many times, I think makes it easier for me to appreciate his photos; it is not just random spontaneity that Ginsberg practiced (though some other Beats did), but a honed perception and celebration of the moment, in some ways like street photography at its best captures not just whatever, but something which opens us up a bit; and how the street photographer doesn't just walk to the street and start shooting, but they create a lifestyle and a way of thinking that leads them to their subject matter.
"So when reading his notes written on the photos (I have an old copy of Snapshot Poetics, published in 1993), I hear Ginsberg's voice and add my knowledge of the characters to form something much more than just the photo; though some of the images are great on their own, taken as a whole they are more consistently interesting; it's also worth noting what Ginsberg himself wrote about his intent, on the inside cover of Snapshot Poetics:
So what was my motivation to take these pictures in those days, apart from the fun while taking them? Well, I had a sacramental sense of these friends. Soon after I met Burroughs and Keruoac in '44, I realized they were people to learn from. Furthermore I was in love with them both in one way or another....
"So 'If you're famous you can get away with anything!' seems like more an expression of how Ginsberg exploited his cache of photographs, not why he took them in the first place; and it's worth noting that many of his photos were taken well before he was even slightly famous
"People often get hung up on Ginsberg's frank expression of his own urges and foibles; morally, i think he was essentially no different from the rest of us, except he devoted himself to not hiding his thoughts, and so he was much more honest than most; that is a good trait for a poet."