He thought they were only snapshots, ways of documenting his friends on cheap drugstore film.
"We were sacramental friends," said Allen Ginsberg, one of the founders of the Beat Generation. "I just adored the people in a sacred way. I felt (Jack) Kerouac had a relation to writing that was almost holy. And (William) Burroughs almost became identical to his writing. I didn't ever think of it as photography; I didn't think it was anything in particular."
After 30 years of taking pictures, Ginsberg, author of the Beat standards "Howl" and "Kaddish," kept getting swamped with reprint requests for various books on the Beats. About 1984, he began to realize that these pictures of people like Kerouac, Burroughs and Neal Cassady had a value beyond documents and sentiments.
He enlisted the help of Raymond Floyd, who checked to see if prints in the Columbia University archives matched negatives Ginsberg possessed. Surprisingly, many of the pictures, including the famous shot of Cassady standing beneath a marquee for the "The Wild One," never had even been printed.
From there, shows were organized, prints were sold to finance more prints, and Ginsberg, who always considered himself an amateur, started taking many more pictures, always keeping his ear open for tips and his eyes focused for crowd shots and long shots.
Ginsberg sees photography as a type of time travel, where people and places are frozen and can be revisited. His photographs are often highly personal, exacerbated by the jittery hand-written text underneath each picture, which explains not just the location and subject of the print, but Ginsberg's thoughts and observations at the time.
More than 100 of these photographs are the subject of an exhibit, "Allen Ginsberg: Photographs and Texts," which runs through Aug. 28 at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea, Los Angeles. Nearby, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts,'' opens Thursday. The exhibit documents Burroughs' impact on American culture.
"The poignancy of the photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world," Ginsberg said of his own pending exhibit. "The transitoriness is what creates the sense of the sacred."
The Fahey/Klein Gallery, which represents the work of such noted art photographers as Herb Ritts, Peter Beard and Linda McCartney, has represented Ginsberg exclusively for seven years. During that time, Ginsberg's work, despite his repeated protests that he is merely an amateur, has continued to mature.
"Like any creative means with experience, one gets better," said David Fahey, who has run the gallery for 10 years. "A big part of being an artist is staying with something. What Allen was doing in the 1950s and '60s he continues to do in the '80s and '90s."
Fahey stressed the simplicity of Ginsberg's photographic method, the unpretentious style evincing the spirit of the subjects, but also of the period, be it New York in the '50s or Colorado in the '90s.
"These are the type of pictures that communicate and document, but at the same time reveal," Fahey said. "Allen's innocent approach enables him to penetrate that veil of protection that everyone has when confronted with a camera."
Still going strong at 70
Although he turned 70 in June, Ginsberg keeps up an exhaustive schedule. He is a distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, where he has taught two courses a term for 10 years. Ginsberg also teaches at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., where he and Anne Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Ginsberg is working on an edition of his selected poems from 1949 to 1995, which will be published by Harper Collins. He also is finishing work on a two-song CD reading of "The Ballad of Skeletons," a satiric look at "right-wing family values," which includes backing work by both Paul McCartney and Philip Glass.
Further, Ginsberg just finished a new recording of "Howl," of which he said, "All the accumulated experience of 30 years is right there in this recording. I have finally gotten the perfect intonations."
Although old friends like Timothy Leary begin to pass away more frequently, Ginsberg is light-hearted and nearly giddy in discussing his mortality and cites a counterculture staple for keeping both him, and many of his friends, running.
"I am 70 years old. I could kick the bucket any decade now," he said. "Someone here (Boulder) interviewed me and said I was the last surviving genius of the Beat group. I said, 'What do you mean? Gregory Corso is alive and kicking. Burroughs is 83 and still producing. Herbert Huncke is 82, and although in a wheelchair, he is writing a lot. Gary Synder has just finished his major epic. Philip Whalen is a Zen master.' So the reporter changed it to 'one of many surviving members of the Beat generations.'
"Actually, we have had a good survival rate and are productive, healthy, because we weren't drinking. The ones that fell by the wayside, like Kerouac, were drinking. We were smoking grass -- it's healthier for you. I mean, nobody ever died from a bad liver smoking a little weed."