Long before she began working with Allen Ginsberg in the 1980s, Jacqueline Gens was inspired by the Beat writers. Discovering their work when she was in her teens, she points to Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish” as one that “just rocked my world.” A poet in her own right – she was a director and a founder of the Master of Fine Arts Programme in Poetry at New England College, and for many years worked at the Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado, where she first met Ginsberg – Gens played a crucial role when Ginsberg’s photography was beginning to gain acclaim through gallery shows, reproductions in books and magazines, and with the publication of the Twelve Trees Press monograph Allen Ginsberg Photographs. For over six years, she acted as the primary archivist for the photography collection, along with handling much of the administrative work.
A resident of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, she was interviewed over Skype in the summer of 2017.
JS: You knew Allen before you started working with him and his photographs, yes?
JG: I was the assistant director with the summer writing program at Naropa, and had worked with Allen a number of times before 1987, which is when I got involved with his photography. In fact, the first time I saw his photographs, he brought a box of them, to the summer writing program in 1985. I remember we were sitting in this mansion donated to Naropa for the summer where faculty were housed. I stayed with Allen that summer as kind of an overseer at this house. I still remember sitting in that elegant living room, we were all dressed up because there was going to be a party, and he was in suit and tie and I had this dress on, and he had this box, and he showed me these photographs, one by one, and I just knew I wanted to have something to do with them. I was quite taken with them, as they seemed to have a sacred quality to them. They were just so beautiful to me.
In the mid-1980s, Raymond Foye, Robert Frank, and Berenice Abbott, among others encouraged him to take his photography seriously. So when I came in 1987, he asked me to organize an archive of his negatives. The office was having a difficult time locating negatives because they were frequently asked to produce photographs for magazines and other publications.
JS: What interested you about the photos?
JG: Allen just loved his friends, they were his sacred world. It went beyond his homosexuality, although there was that element too. In his later years, he always photographed ordinary people as well. I was recently reading the New York Times review of the National Gallery Beat show (“Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg”) that basically pans it, saying he’s not a great photographer. I think the beauty of his photography collection is that his entire world is included, not just the Beats. As he grew older, he would, for example, photograph a kid at an ice cream stand, or he would photograph just street scenes.
Towards the end before I left, he was involved with all the painters like Francisco Clemente, Sandro Chia. He had entered that sort-of realm of high society, it wasn’t just the literary world, it was big money; they lived in glorious lofts, and he photographed them all, as portraits. He was very magnanimous in his appreciation for others and his keen perception of people no matter who or where they come from. And that’s what really drew me to him as a person as well.
JS: How did you go about setting up the photography archive?
JG: What Allen had me do is call all the great photographers – Richard Avendon, Robert Frank – and ask them how to set up this archive. I wasn’t a photographer; I knew nothing about photography. Between both of them, they suggested each negative be numbered. I couldn’t really do that, so we created these funky binders with the contact sheets, which were numbered, and then there was an opposite sleeve with the negatives. For the six years or so that I worked with Allen and the photographs, that’s what he used. Eventually of course everything would be digitized.
JS: Did you arrange for the prints to be made as well?
JG: Sid (Kaplan) and Brian (Graham) were the two go-tos for printing. I would hand-deliver the negatives and pick up the prints, or sometimes Sid would drop them off. So, not only did I do that, I also curated the photos for the Ginsberg film (The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, directed by Jerry Aronson). I collected all those photographs and had them printed. It was an enormous job. And we also had very large shows in Europe and Japan that I helped with, often with the curators, helping them select the photos to show. There was a lot of big money and a lot of politics around the shows. They had to be produced and curated. The photographs then had to be printed and then captions added to them. It was a lot of work, not to mention the enormous magazine requests for reproductions.
JS: What were the logistics of the operation?
JG: We would get an order, like maybe the Kerouac on the fire escape. After either Sid or Brian printed them I had to take them to Allen for him to write the captions. I spent a lot of time with Allen as he would hand-write on the finished prints. It’s the captions that enliven them and bring them to life. He couldn’t just write them and have them strewn around the office. You had to hand him the photograph, then you had the pens, he had to write them and leave them to dry, and then write another photograph caption. They said I was the “photography person” in the office, but I was also the office manager. The requests were coming in at a rapid rate in an office that was very understaffed. And when I first started with Allen and working on the photographic archive, it was in Allen’s tiny apartment on East 12th Street, and working with the negatives and getting everything together, it was really chaotic.
JS: The timing, the mid-1980s, seemed ideal for the rediscovery of Allen’s photographs.
KG: Allen’s collected works had recently come out. That sort-of became a renewal of his fame. Of course, he was always famous: I remember when I was a teenager and I’d see him on late-night TV. But in 1985, the collected works came out (Collected Poems 1947-1980), and it came out to rave reviews, so there was a renewed interest in the Beats generally, and in Allen specifically, so he began to walk around with his camera. Because of this renewal in his literary career, as Allen said in an interview once, if you’re really well known in one art, people might take you seriously in another art, and that’s what happened (with the photography).
He took his camera because he had been encouraged by Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott. Richard Avendon had photographed his family as well, so Allen already knew a lot of photographers. Raymond Foye had a very important role in the transition from merely personal snapshots to an historical chronicle of a literary movement. But he was kind-of out of the picture when I came around two years later.
JS: Was a pricing model established for reproductions?
JG: It was somewhat negotiable. He was being published in a lot of different venues, such as magazines and newspapers. I didn’t have anything to do with the money, I was just doing the hands-on work, working with Sid and Brian, and then also working with Allen to find the photographs. Sometimes we’d have a stack of photographs that had to be signed. I often would take them to his house to do them there. Allen had strange office hours. He kind-of came alive around 4:00 PM, just as we were getting ready to leave. Sometimes I would leave them overnight on his desk.
JS: Did Allen pay close attention to the contact sheets and make decisions on what to print?
JG: Oh yeah, he would circle what he thought were great photos. He wasn’t just blindly selecting photos. And once in a while, other people would point out, “Here’s a good photo.” In the early period, Robert Frank would look at them all, and Frank was really the one that influenced him. Some of Allen’s photos, the greatness of them, I think they are as close to Robert Frank as they can be. There’s the one of Neal Cassady outside the billboard marquee in San Francisco, as well as some of those intimate portraits.
to be continued