Raymond Foye on Allen Ginsberg’s Photography – part 2

Raymond Foye on Allen Ginsberg’s photography – continued from yesterday

JS: Robert Frank was obviously an important influence for Allen.

RF: For most people I knew, Allen was a real hero, but Allen had his own heroes, and Robert was certainly one of them. Allen worshipped Robert. So the photography was a way for him to bond with Robert, and to be his student. He had another friend who was a photographer, who lived above Strand Books (in New York), Hank O”Neal. He was the commercial agent for Berenice Abbott. He was another person whom Allen relied on for help and advice. Through Hank, Allen met Berenice. She was in her eighties by then. She had kind of an imperious quality, very gruff and blunt, and she’d tell him off. He wanted to take photographs of her, he’d be jumping all around, and she’d say, “Allen, slow down. Don’t be a shutterbug, compose your picture.” She taught him about composition. I remember Robert once when Allen was doing a portrait of somebody, he said, “Allen, try to get the hands in as well. If you can get the hands in as well as the face, you can tell twice as much about a person.” He was getting little pointers. And he would always be asking about film-speeds and aperture, figuring it out. You see Allen wasn’t just a great teacher, he was a great student as well.

JS: So he was interested in some of the mechanics of the camera?

RF: He was usually more interested in simply taking the photo, but he had to learn some of the mechanics. He couldn’t have gotten the good photos (without that knowledge). If you look at his photos, they are very well exposed and in focus. I sat with him and explained to him the Minor White Zone System Manual, how you meter – how you calculate film-speeds, shutter-speeds, aperture-openings. It’s about pre-visualizing the picture. I got him a light meter, a Weston Master 5, a classic. You could pick all this stuff up at the time in pawn shops for very little money. I showed him how it worked. Although he wasn’t a gear head, Allen was a very practical person.

JS: He was also purchasing better cameras too, from what I understand.

RF: Yes. He had a small Olympus at first but once we got going, he begun buying better cameras, a Leica and a Rolleiflex. He was going to camera stores with Robert Frank. I went with them once to a place called Olden Cameras upstairs on Herald Square. Robert was very careful when it came to examining the lenses. “This camera is just a box,” he told Allen. “It’s the lens that counts. Photography is about optics.” Robert went for  Zeiss lenses but they had to be from certain years when Carl Zeiss himself was still making them.

JS: He obviously could see the interest the old photographs were generating. Was that part of the motivation in terms of thinking, “Hmm, maybe I should try my hand at photography?”

RF: Absolutely At one point he said to me, he said, “Why did I ever stop?”  He told me he lost the camera so he just stopped. I don’t think he was getting any good feedback, either. It was the appreciation and the feedback he was getting that encouraged him to continue.And then of course it very much fit in with his poetics. Allen’s photographs are very much like his poems in (that) they are extremely well observed, they are very intimate, confessional, poignant, tender, well drawn, and have great attention to detail. I always thought the photographs were a continuation of the poems. I know some of the things that thrilled Allen the most in his photography were things like that scene in his kitchen with the window open, and the drapes blowing. He was just captivated by that photograph. He shot that image over and over down through the years. The magic of the ordinary moment.

I remember once we were looking through a Berenice Abbott book, and there’s a picture of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue {editorial note – 34th and 33rd street] by her from up high. And I remember we were looking at it together and marvelling at what an absolutely magical, captivating photograph it was. Even though it’s seemingly an ordinary photograph. And I said to Allen, “It’s like being on acid”. And he was like, “Exactly.” It just had that sacred dimension of total ordinariness. Which is really what enlightenment is supposed to be.

[Night View, 1932 – Photo: Berenice Abbott]

JS: How do Allen’s photographs fall within his work as a poet?

RF: It was an extension of his poetic sensibility, and it was a way of interacting and engaging with people. Allen always had a strong sense of the historicity of the moment; everything was worth documenting. Why else would you save a laundry list from Kerouac, or a grocery list from Burroughs? That was the marvelous thing about Allen; he saw his friends as heroes, he perceived the mythic dimensions of everyday life. He honoured the moment. It also then became a diaristic endeavor, the day-to-day flow, the quotidian. That’s a book I would like to see done, that I would really like to do, since the greatest hits approach has been done. We’ve seen the perfect, isolated images over and over. I’d like to see a big thick book that would have five thousand imges, page after page. Before Allen’s negatives went off to Stanford University, I went through all of the contact sheets because I wanted to make prints of things that I had an emotional contact with. I wanted picures of myself, or myself with certain people. That experience of going through all the negatives and contact sheets made me aware of the day-to-day story the photographs tell. That’s the book I would like to see.

JS: You stopped printing the photos.

RF: At a certain point, I just couldn’t keep printing, so he started to use Brian Graham, and then Sid Kaplan.

JS: There’s an argument made that unless one prints his or her own photographs, one can’t be considered a serious photographer, that it lessens the photographs. Do you agree?

RF: That’s one perspective. It depends on the photographer

JS: How much attention would Allen pay to the print quality?

RF: A lot. He spent time on cropping, he wanted to see detail, he began to understand how detail in shadow areas might be brought out, he understood about burning and dodging. And then at a certain point, there came a process where one could actually somehow redevelop negatives and pull more information out of them. Because there were some things that were taken in very, very dark situations, some of the photos of Kerouac and Burroughs horsing around. At a certain point, Sid Kaplan went back into those negatives, reprocessed them chemically, and got prints that showed you twice as much as you’d ever seen before, and that was very exciting.

He definitely knew a good print when he saw it. Allen loved going around to artists’ studios, he loved going to galleries. He spent a lot of time at (artist) Francesco Clemente‘s loft, he knew artists from the past like Larry Rivers, (Robert) Rauschenberg. And he had a real sense of the art. Allen was always going to jazz clubs and underground films. He was into all this counterculture stuff, in a way that Burroughs and the others were not.

JS: How long then were you involved with the Ginsberg photographs?

RF: I segued out of it at a a certain point, sometime after the first couple of shows. I had other things going on, and frankly there wasn’t enough money to be made strictly from Allen’s photography. I was happy to lend a hand and check in and be around, but the office began to be capable of handling things. And I didn’t need to be involved day-to-day. He named me in his will as an advisor to his estate, in particular regarding the photography. But they never asked me, and I didn’t feel like intruding. I didn’t agree with a lot of the things they were doing, and very often I thought they weren’t asking for enough money.  I remember once when Allen got asked by Microsoft, [Apple?] when they were launching some program, and they wanted to use “the best minds of my generation” in a campaign ad to launch Windows ’95 [or Apple program].  And he said to me, “How much should I charge?” and I said, five hundred thousand dollars, and he went ashen. He asked for fifty thousand dollars. I said, “Allen, if R.E.M. turned down twelve million dollars for It’s the End of the World as We Know It you can get half a million. Allen didn’t care about money. As soon as he got that fifty grand from Microsoft, he gave it away. The only thing I ever saw him financially motivated about was getting a loft, right at the end of his life. From the first I hung around him he was always talking aboutwanting to live in a loft with paintings, it was an idea he had about chic New York. He said, “I’m tired of all these little tenement rooms”. He held out for a million dollars for his archive because he knew that would get him the loft. And he did get it, but sadly he died a few months later.  I saw him a week before he died and he signed a book for me, “In my new loft, where I aspire to expire.”

JS: Do you have some favourites from the collection?

RF: I love the Harry Smith photos. He really captured Harry. He nursed Harry back to health after Harry got hit by a car. Allen lost track of Harry and one day he was on a cab on the Bowery and he saw Harry hobbling across the street. He stopped the taxi and yelled to him, nobody had seen Harry for months and months, nobody knew where he was. Harry burned down a lot of bridges. When you disappear in New York City, you really do disappear. Allen invited Harry to live in his house and nursed him back to health. Harry would have died otherwise. Then he couldn’t stand him anymore. Eventually he came to the Chelsea (Hotel) and I got him a room and we got the Grateful Dead (Rex Foundation)  to pay his rent. Harry was very photogenic. And he wouldn’t just pose for anybody. The famous shot of Harry Smith pouring milk hangs as a mural in the fancy lobby of the Ace Hotel in New York City.  The Ace Hotel was formerly the Breslin Hotel – more of a flophouse than a hotel when Harry lived there, from the late 1970s until 1984. Now people are sipping twenty-five-dollar cocktails and typing on their iPads, and Harry is staring down at them in that famous photo by Allen Ginsberg. I guess that’s a New York story. But Harry would have liked that.JS: What other photographs?

RF: The one of Gregory Corso in Paris, in that garret. I always loved that one. The one of Burroughs typing Naked Lunch in Morocco. Some of the portraits of Robert Frank in his loft. He took some really great pictures of (Francesco) Clemente

 

[Gregory Corso, Paris, 1957]

[William Burroughs at typewriter, 1953]

 

[Robert Frank and Allen Ginsberg at Frank’s Apartment, New York, 1984]

 

[Francesco Clemente works on his portrait of Allen Ginsberg]

JS: Do you think that the photos could stand on their own if it wasn’t for Ginsberg holding the camera and releasing the shutter?

RF: That’s like saying, if you take the music away from a libretto in a Wagner opera, does it stand up on its own? It’s a nonsensical question because the two are one. If you were walking along the street and you found a bunch of them in the trash, would you keep them or would you save them? If you recognized the person in the photo you would probably hold on to them; if you didn’t, probably not. But what would an ordinary person do if they found a Paul Strand photograph lying in the trash? They’ d probably pass it by.

JS: Do you know how he felt about his own photographic work?

RF: Jack (Kerouac) on the fire escape, and Neal (Cassady) with Natalie Jackson under the marquee. I remember him specifically remarking,”Wow, I really captured a moment.” He was impressed with himself, with those images. The ones of Kerouac and Bill (Burroughs) pretending to wrestle with each other, holding the knives. The family portrait of the Orlovskys, the tragedy of that family, like something out of Dostoevsky. He liked that photo quite a lot.

JS: Do you think there’s anything specific that gives the photos a special quality?

RF: There’s an aura of Ginsberg behind the lens. What he had was an extreme level of sensitivity. He really had an incredible antenna. He always saw the human element in things, the sadness of people, how sad people are because they’re striving and lonely and hurt. He had such empathy. He also, from years of being a serious meditator, he understood the nature of the mind and perception, the texture of consciousness, he understood an awful lot about what we see, and the mind’s  eye – he was a very astute observer. He was calm and poised and he confers that vibe on his subjects. He could penetrate reality with his mind. So the photographs are extremely well observed. Are they as good as Robert Frank? No. Are they as good as Elsa Dorfman? Yes. I think so. Where would I put him in relation to other photographers? He’s not as much of a formalist as Richard Avedon, but his project is very similar to Avedon: he’s letting the people come through. It’s hard for me to be objective because I was so close to it all. The lack of aesthetic imposition is refreshing. He would never be so mundane as to chase after a style.

One photo that he always liked was a photo of me and Holly Solomon, sitting on a sofa at her apartment, taken after the opening of his first show. It’s a classic Fifth Avenue apartment, cocktails and fancy art. I’m wearing an Irish tweed suit and she’s all dressed up. I have a drink in my hand, and I’m laughing and she’s gesturing, and he always used to say, “This is uptown society.”  Allen loved going between the high and the low, which you could do in New York. He loved being down on the Lower East Side with the poets, but he also loved the uptown scene too. He had a refreshing lack of judgement that came from seeing things as they are. I suppose that is his photographic legacy.

2 comments

  1. Wonderful interview. I worked on Allen’s photos too, perhaps earlier than Raymond but certainly not as extensively. For two summers in the early 80s, I filled in for Bob Rosenthal in Allen’s East 12th Street office/residence while Bob went off on summer holiday. I took a stab at organizing the photos/contact sheets/negs stacked up in filing cabinets. At that time, there also was a project where Allen supplied a batch of 11×14 prints to Bob Dylan who was to write captions for them (I suppose similar to the collaboration Dylan would later do with Barry Feinstein on “Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric”). I walked the holy prints over to Dylan’s office hoping to meet the man himself. Alas, a nice receptionist took receipt and I was back out on the cold streets.

  2. Wonderful, enlightening interview. Thanks! The first time I ran into Allen in the old St. Marks bookstore, NYC, he had his camera around his neck. I asked him for tips on beginning meditation ( after chatting about our shared hometown of Paterson, NJ). He just smiled and said, index finger pointing up, “Learn how to sit still!”

    Also – thanks to Raymond Foye for Hanuman Books!

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