John Shoesmith interviews Raymond Foye on Allen Ginsberg’s photography
JS: You knew Allen before you started working with the photographs. How did your role with the photos begin?
RF: I met Allen in 1973 when I was sixteen, and a junior at Lowell High School. I went with the senior English honors class to a Kerouac symposium held at Salem State College, in Massachusetts. My English teacher, a lovely woman named Rita Sullivan, allowed me to go with the senior class, even though I was a junior, because she knew I was reading Kerouac. Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso were also there, as was Peggy Biderman, a close friend of Gregory’s who lived at the Chelsea Hotel. Eventually, all these people became very close friends. Somehow I managed to stay in touch with them as I was gowing up and travelling around.
I worked at City Lights Books in San Francisco from 1977 to 1979, and renewed my acquaintance with Allen there. When I moved to New York in 1979, I worked freelance as an assistant to Allen on various projects. At one point he paid me as his assistant to go up to his archives at Butler Library at Columbia University – he wanted some items, so I had to go up and retrieve them. Now this was 1984, and I was twenty-seven.
I had a letter from him which I presented to Kenneth Lohf, head of Special Collections at Butler Library. I started going through the boxes of materials, and in the course of my search I encountered all of these photographs and negatives in drugstore envelopes. In those days you’d send the film to the drugstore to be developed and you’d get the prints back, with the negatives. They were not good prints, but I could see right away that the negatives were good: mostly well-exposed, and in most cases they were two-and-a-quarter inch square, or two-and-a-quarter by three-and-a-quarter inches, a less common format. I was familiar with some of the photos from Ann Charters’ book Scenes Along The Road and also in her biography of Kerouac. The photographs had been reproduced here and there, but not well. They were just treated as snapshots.
I had studied photography at the Philadelphia College of Art with Ray Metzker, and at the Art Institute of Chicago for a semester with Ken Josephson, and later at the San Francisco Art Institute with Linda Connor, so I knew photography. I knew how to shoot. I knew how to print. I knew darkroom work, all of that. I could tell just by looking that these were very good negatives. When I got back to his office I said to Allen, “I’d like to take some of the negatives out of your archive and make really good prints fron them.” He said ok, so that was another letter, another permission. These things still belonged to Allen, they were only on deposit. For many years Allen was hoping that Columbia would purchase his archives. Since Allen was a famous alumnus it seemed like the right place for the materials. But they never did make the purchase, which was a terrible missed opportunity, in my view. In any case, I removed a small selection of negatives – they were the classic 1953 shots of the apartment on East 7th Street with Kerouac and Burroughs. There were darkrooms for rent by the hour on West 20th Street that I regularly made use of. I spent a couple of days doing nice, large prints, 11 x 14, on Agfa Brovira paper, put them in a box, and brought them to Allen’s apartment, spread them out and showed them to him. And it was a revelation to him: he had no idea that he had this kind of material, that they were that good, and that they could be blown up like that. I said, “If you were to caption these, they’d be really great and we could sell them.” Allen was always very enterprising and so was I. So he started writing captions, and we experimented with a lot of different kinds of ink, a lot of different kinds of pens. The Mountblanc pen worked well, and I got Allen to start putting captions underneath them. I thought they would be marketable and saleable. I knew they were beautiful and I knew they were important, and I knew they could be shown. Actually, I didn’t have much practical experience with that side of things, but I had hopes that we could sell them.
JS: So the idea behind captioning the photos came from you?
RF: The caption idea came from Elsa Dorfman: she published a book called Elsa’ s Housebook. That was one of the books I owned when I was young. Fred McDarrah’s The Beat Scene was another one. I’d just sit there and look at the pictures and dream about hanging out with Beats. “How can I hang out with them? How can I live in the Chelsea Hotel?” It was all such a dream that I had. I love Elsa’s Housebook. It was a great book, the way she put the captions underneath. Allen’s handwriting was very similar. I knew he could be great at captions because he loved summing things up in a very precise way. And it amplified the picture: the captions were not derivative; they were parallel, a separate thing.
JS: Obviously the captions are such a unique element of those photographs, particularly the early iconic ones of the Beats.
RF: With the captions, they reminded him of things that he otherwise wouldn’t have been reminded of. He was teaching and was re-reading things like Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, but seeing the photographs definitely jogged his memory. The captions became an art form in themselves, and he started making sure they kept copies of all the captions. They went from becoming haiku-like, just a line or two, to being more epic – sometimes they’d be longer than the size of the photograph. Of course every time you remember something, what you’re really doing is remembering the last time you remembered it. And that then becomes a palimpsest. It does change.
JS: You helped arrange the first gallery showing of the Ginsberg photographs
RF: Yes. The first show was at Holly Solomon‘s in January 1984. I would guess it was spring that I went up to Butler Librray, and the summer when I was doing the printing. By this time I was borrowing a darkroom on Fulton Street that belonged to Andrew Moore – it was summer and extremely hot in the darkroom, I remember that – then by the fall I went to Holly Solomon with these photographs. I knew Holly, I liked her, and the Director of her gallery was Manuel Gonzalez. He was originally from Cuba; he was full of energy and very intelligent.
It’s difficult to remember why I decided to take them to Holly – I knew she would like them. If there was a specific reason, I don’t recall. It seemed right for her, and I was friends with Manuel. At that time Holly showed Laurie Anderson, William Wegman, Nam June Paik. There was a little backroom in the space in the gallery and they liked to do two-person shows. So I went up to 724 Fifth Avenue with a box of photos and showed them to Manuel and to Holly and said, “Can you do a show?” And they were like. “Yeah, great, let’s do it.” We didn’t have a budget for framing or matting, so we just put them behind glass and pinned the glass to the wall with clips. We filled the back room with photos. At the last minute, Allen took a marker and wrote a line on the wall from his poem “Footnote to Howl”. The line was “Hideous Human Angels,” and that became the name of the show.
(“Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady holy the unknown buggered and suffering beggars holy the hideous human angels!”)
We installed the show on a Thursday, and the show opened on a Saturday. And between that time, the gallery called around, and word got out in the press, and Allen of course was a one-man press agent. That opening was so packed. I don’t remember whose show was in the front room. We completely overwhelmed whoever was in that front room.
Before the opening I said to him, pointing to the photographs in the shows. “You know Allen, this is all well and good, but this is 1953 and this is 1957 and this is 1963, and there isn’t anything after 1965.” So I said, “Go buy a camera. start shooting again.” He said, “Oh, okay, great.” He went to Robert Frank, and asked Robert to take him to a camera store. Imagine that! But Robert was just around in those days, nothing special, just hanging around. Unless you were a photography student like myself and happened to know that this is a man who single-handedly changed the face of photography, if you saw him, you’d think he was just a bum on the street. He was very demure, he was not seeking the spotlight, he did not go to things that were public. It was a very different world in those days, the media was not so involved in branding everything every minute of the day. Of course, to some of us, Robert was a very important underground filmmaker and photographer. But you could bump into him on the Bowery, and you could hang out with him at his studio on Bleecker Street, and everything was cool as long as you didn’t make a big fuss about him being Robert Frank. I spent a lot of time at his place, we’d smoke pot, we’d listen to (Bob) Dylan and Van Morrison and Neil Young. One day after I’d passed some sort oftest, I guess, he took down a box, showed me the contact sheets to The Americans. I’ll never forget that.
JS: Did the Ginsberg photos sell well?
RF: They did. They weren’t too expensive. One thing I did do, prior to that show, to raise money to be able to buy supplies and dark room time and pay myself a little bit, I put together two sets of a hundred prints. He captioned every one and I tried to sell those sets for five thousand dollars each. Robert Rainwater at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library bought one set. He jumped right on it. But I couldn’t get anyone else interested. A lot of institutions – the Getty, the Met, the MoMA – I took them everywhere I could think of, they all turned me down. One hundred signed photographs for five thousand dollars, in retrospect, not bad. We never sold that second set. But with the Berg sale, that’s how I was able to finance the printing.
JS: You were involved with the Twelve Trees Press book, Allen Ginsberg Photographs, as well?
RF: Yes, I was friends with Jack Woody from Twelve Trees, and I engaged him in that project. He was doing beautiful photography books with Herb Ritts and Robert Mapplethorpe. In many ways, Jack Woody invented the contemporary photography book aesthetic as we now know it. Certainly, Minor White and Michael Hoffman got the ball rolling at Aperture, but Jack Woody upped the scale, and gave even greater prominence to really fine gravure printing, So Jack Woody came by Allen’s house, and in a few hours we put together that book of photographs.
And then Allen got really into photography, which is something that a lot of people had a hard time forgiving me for because he became so obsessed. I remember at the time, those around him like his secretary Bob Rosenthal, they loved Allen and supported him, anything he wanted to do was fine, but Allen was spending a lot of money and a lot of time on the photography. It was an expensive hobby, and it was a lot of work for everyone in the office. But in retrospect it was far more than a hobby. And he became a real nuisance with that camera! I’m joking, but he really did get in everybody’s face all the time. But because he was Allen Ginsberg, people put up with him, they were honoured to have that attention paid, they would cooperate. Even Dylan would sit still for him. That’s part of the magic of the portraits: the subject is being photographed by Allen Ginsberg, they are interacting with someone whom they deeply admire.