John Shoesmith interview with Sid Kaplan on his work as printer of Allen Ginsberg’s photography continues
JS: I’m sure that famous Kerouac photo on the fire escape was one you probably could have done in your sleep, seeing as you probably printed it dozens of times.
SK: That was very tricky print to do. It was very underdeveloped, and at the time, I didn’t have the magic fluid handy. What happened with the Kerouac thing, we had it printed on a very hard grade of paper. The difference between the face and his hair – if you made the face good, the hair would look grey. If you made the hair good, the face would look grey. So what I had to do on that one is to hold back the face. Normally, on an exposure in the darkroom, on a thin negative, you could probably do maybe ten seconds at the most. The difference between the face and the hair was such that I had to keep printing, to make the light source darker and darker. So I get maybe thirty- to forty-second exposure. With that, I could just get in there with the dodging stick for maybe three seconds to light separate the face from the hair. It was a little bit trial and error.
Another interesting thing on the Kerouac one. When I started it, it was one size. And then, every time he had another print done, he kept adding things on to it. So then what I think what I had to do was change the size; make it smaller so there would be more white space horizontal.
JS: Do you remember any other challenging negatives?
SK: Sure, there was another one, maybe on the same roll of film, where Kerouac and Burroughs were playing with each other, pointing knives at each other. That one, the same thing. Another one, with Burroughs alone, a horizontal one, with a lot of books, a bookcase in front of him. The bookcases were hitting the sun, and Burroughs’ face wasn’t in the sun. So, again, it was more of a dark to light ratio than the film would be capable of doing.
JS: What about the other really famous one of Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson under the marquee
SK: Yes, that’s a great photo. And that was an easy photo to print as the exposure was good.
JS: Any others that stand out for you?
SK: I have one he did of me, so I made an 8 x 10 and he signed a copy for me. Another one of Robert (Frank) that he did in front of his building at 12th Street, that is also pretty good. There’s also the last photos. A couple of days before Allen died, Robert was here. Robert comes over, or I was over at Robert’s house, I forgot. And Robert says, “I was just over at Allen’s place to see him, and he looked in really bad shape. He tried taking a picture of us and couldn’t hold the camera steady.” Well we knew already that it was just a matter of time before Allen dies. After he dies, one of the things I did was develop all of the film that Allen had left in the cameras. There was I think three cameras and they all had film. The last frame is the one Allen shot of Robert and Peter (Orlovsky). The next frame after, Allen was in a coma. I have a print of the two of them, a diptych, the first before and then the frame after that when he was in a coma.
JS: That last roll of film – that must have been emotional for you.
SK: It wasn’t the first time I’ve had to do that type of thing. But seeing the first frames, I don’t know what I was thinking, but obvously it wasn’t anything good.
JS: The relationship you had with Allen was obviously morethan one between photographer and printer.
SK: It was. I have another story about Allen. I was going through a bad time. It was a couple of days after my stepdad dies, and of course I was the guy in charge of the funeral arrangements and al of that kind of stuff. There was unbelievable rain, there’s no food in here, and I have to go out and get something to eat. I’m walking up 12th street, and as I’m walking past, Allen is comig out the door. Allen was going out to eat too, so I started telling him about how bad I was feeling. So wesit down to eat together, and I don’t know how he got into it, but the next thing I got was a personal reading of “Kaddish” (Ginsberg’s celebrated poem about his mother) as we were having dinner. I was really unbelievable.
JS: Do you ever think of your own role, (the role) you’ve played in popularizing and legitimizing Allen Ginsberg as a photographer?
SK: No, not really. Thank you for saying that. When I was doing it, I wasn’t thinking that way at all, and I’m not sure that Allen was thinking of it that way either. I just knew at the time at how blessed and lucky I was. One time, I was doing an exhibition together with Robert, and Robert was spending a lot of time here, and Allen knew it. Every morning, Allen would show up sometimes with a pineapple, sometimes a cantaloupe, and I’d be in the darkroom working, and Robert and Allen were here together and just gabbing. I just knew, I was blessed, I was lucky. He definitely for me was an older brother. Allen was unbelievably nice to me. I could go on telling stories, one after another about that. From my house, from here, to where Allen lived on 12th Street, including the steps I had to walk up, it was eighty-three steps. So over the years, we got to know each other pretty good. I always had a spare key to his apartment – your closest neighbor should always have a key.