Continuing and concluding our series of interviews regarding Allen-the-photographer
John Shoesmith interviews Bob Rosenthal
Bob Rosenthal first met Allen Ginsberg in the mid-1970s, when he and his wife helped the poet secure an apartment in the New York City building where they were then living. He started doing some part-time work for Ginsberg in 1977, eventually becoming his fulltime secretary in 1979, a job in which he remained until Ginsberg’s death in 1997. Often referred to as Ginsberg’s “right-hand man,” his main role was to handle the increasing amount of administrative tasks associated with what some called “the Ginsberg cottage industry.” From the mid-1980s onward, when the Ginsberg photographs were being rediscovered, that role included dealing with the business of the photographs.
Rosenthal, who eventually became a high school teacher, is still much involved in the Ginsberg legacy. He recently completed a manuscript of his years working with Ginsberg, titled Straight Around Allen, which will be appearing soon from Beatdom.
This interview took place in March 2017 at the 13th St. office of the Allen Ginsberg Trust in New York City.
JS: What’s your earliest memory of the Ginsberg photos?
BR: When I came in to work with Allen, the deal was to save everything. Don’t throw anything out. Information storage and retrieval was a big thing for him. That’s why I existed: he had an office with lots of files. Totally idiosyncratic files too: FBI files, the censored papers retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act, that kind of stuff. Everything went into bags, all the business and literary mail, crazy letters, mad letters. Andreas Brown was his agent, and he said, “We’ll just come and pick up these boxes and bags, put a value on them, and send the shipment to Columbia University Special Collections.” All the photographs got put in and sent up, the “drugstore prints”, as Allen coined them, along with the negatives in the envelopes and the contact sheets. They were up there for safe keeping. But Columbia did not invest in it. It was on deposit, and they assumed Allen would gift it to them. Everybody that was doing a book on the Beats would go up to Columbia and sift through the photographs, and perhaps put a few prints in their pockets. The vintage prints walked. So we had no catalogue of what was up there.
Raymond Foye goes up, and he sees that it’s in disarray. So he spends some time up there to support his work, and he puts it into order. But then when the next ten people come to look at the photos, it goes out of order again. Later, (Ginsberg bibliographer) Bill Morgan catalogued the images and made it stick. Raymond recognized the importance of these photographs at Columbia. He made the Holly Solomon show happen, and that was the resurgence of Allen as a photographer. And Raymond did some of the first prints.
JS: Was Allen getting paid when the photographs were being used?
BR: I started the compensation around the time, I initiated user fees, for things like a photo being using for cover art. For a Viking book, for example, we’d charge $400. I was just trying to pay for my salary. I think I asked someone else, perhaps Elsa (Dorfman), who sold prints to books, what a decent price would be.
JS: Where did the idea of captioning of the photographs come from?
BR: I actually don’t know the genesis of the captions. I wouldn’t be surprised if Raymond had suggested it. He probably said, “Why don’t you write something, you’re Allen Ginsberg.” Allen had a native intelligence that goes far beyond anything I could comprehend. He could see this was his way of becoming a photographer: to caption them, make them personal. I know that when it comes to stuff that gets written about with Allen: it’s that sacramental sense of friendship that’s in his photographs. So when he takes a picture of Jack Kerouac in the 1950s on the fire escape, Jack isn’t thinking of, “Look how iconic I am,” but he’s just smoking a cigarette and he’s thinking, “There’s my dear friend Allen, and I’m posing for him.”
It was at a show years later, and a young lady from the Midwest was coming to interview Allen, so I suggested she come to the opening. She comes up to me later and says “I just met Jack Kerouac.” Oh god, this is crazy. “What do you mean, show me.” And it was a picture of Jack, it was the silver gelatin print, and it communicated Jack Kerouac to her. The viewer becomes Allen. That’s something you see with the photographs, you see his world, you become Allen in his shows, you see his friends. It’s that direct communication. Then with the captions, it’s consistent with his collection of poetry with the footnotes. As if he’s saying, “what will people need to know in fifty years, what will they need to know in a hundred years.” And then he adds that. And then being wily, he wants to put in some literary tidbit, a little artifact that makes the captions worth reading.
to be continued