Bob Rosenthal Interview (On Photography) – 2

John Shoesmith’s interview with Bob Rosenthal continues

JS: Would the captions change much then, the more he was captioning? Especially some of the iconic ones which he must have captioned dozens of times.

BR: Sometimes the difference would be the change of an adjective, a tweaking, but sometimes something will come up and it gets longer and longer. They all build on each other. Writing about it is the memory of the sacred. This is what the prints represent. But those silver gelatin prints, they have an eternal etching to them, and the way the eyes look, the communication is so strong. So for Allen, I think it was a great match, the photos with the captions: he’s able to look back on his life, but in a very progressive way.

JS: In your view, was Allen a good photographer?

BR: He absolutely had a gifted eye, but it wasn’t necessarily unique. Allen himself was unique, so it was Allen taking the picture. He understood that Robert (Frank) was great, Berenice (Abbott) was great, but he didn’t articulate it. There was no photographic art theory coming out of Allen, at least until later and with the Twelve Trees Press photography book [Allen Ginsberg Photographs].

JS: In many ways, Allen is capturing relationships through his photography, particularly the early ones of the Beats.

BR: Allen is looking at Bill Burroughs, and thinking “I love him, and I don’t live in a world of love, but I want to hold on to this love. I’ll take a picture of it.” He’s using a brownie camera, a girl-scout type camera. He had better cameras soon after. I’ve had discussions with presenters about this. He always told me, although maybe this is an alternative fact, he had a brownie. A little box camera, a one-button click. That remains a question. But it’s certainly an early camera, and he certainly didn’t think of himself as a photographer. These were snapshots. Beautiful moments where they’re play-acting. He did understand this idea that his friendships were sacred, and that’s unusual for a young man or woman to realize. That’s what sort-of makes Allen kind of simple: he takes these photographs, like the picture of Neal (Cassady) and Natalie (Jackson) under the Wild Ones marquee, one cannot be more contrived, only Allen can take that photograph and get away with it.

JS: Some of the most moving photographs in the collection are of William Burroughs – would you agree?

William Burroughs and Alene Lee – photo: Allen Ginsberg

BR: Burroughs is Allen’s biggest topic. He was the longest-serving, most complete, deepest, best story kind-of topic. My favourite Burroughs is a picture of him on the rooftop with Alene Lee, and they’re touching. And it’s William being totally tender, and you don’t see William being tender, especially with women. But Alene was special. I’ve never seen anybody else get that picture of William. That was during the time of Kerouac’s novel, The Subterraneans, when Alene was there (she was the character Mardou in the novel).

JS: With Allen’s photography, most people still seem most interested in those early photographs of the Beats.

BR: That’s just a fascinating association of people – Allen, Jack, Gregory (Corso) and William Burroughs – because they were all so different from each other. It’s a literary movement in that they’re writing with candor – and they complement and respect each other. But it’s not a style movement; it’s a candor movement. Burroughs strips away all the veneers, so does Allen, and Kerouac just goes beyond it, his prose is on a different level.

As he gets older and starts to take more photographs – remember, he’s already taken the iconic photographs – he can’t go back and take Jack Kerouac on the fire escape. But with the captions, he can walk back to that moment, and the caption for that fire escape photo gets longer and longer, so the print gets more and more narrow.

JS: The photography aspect of Allen seemed to grow more important over time, would you agree with that?

BR: Allen is a persona. The photographs are not his poetry, but they are part of his persona. It’s his life as a social activist. But he’s also this other guy – he’s Irwin [Allen’s given first name]. That’s why I think the photographs are so key to complete his world and were such a major focus to his life. I think he understood how visual the age is, even though he didn’t really watch TV, he didn’t really go to the movies and he didn’t really like theatre all that much. He liked art events; he liked painters and photographers. I see photography as a major work of his.

It isn’t that his poetry is getting less important or proficient, but he has to work harder to write poetry. Whereas the photographs, they demanded to be taken.

JS: I hear stories of Allen always carrying his camera around.

BR: From the mid-1980s onward, he was always carrying his camera. The cameras changed, they got smaller and simpler, and as his diabetes affected his eyesight, we got him a self-focusing one.

JS: Robert Frank must have been a big influence on Allen’s photography.

BR: Robert Frank was always there; they were good friends. Robert would never say you could make money with photography. Robert totally hates success that way. I think he liked that purity about Allen.

JS: But unlike other photographers, like Frank, Allen didn’t seem to be interested in learning about the mechanics of photography, learning what the cameras could do, for example.

BR: Allen never learns the mechanics of photography. For instance, the first Leica he purchased was exactly the model that Robert used for The Americans. But the Tri-X film he was purchasing for it was a slightly different size, so one had to trim the leader. That was too much for Allen, so we had to load the film for him. So finally he bought a Leica that was more modern, and the film would easily feed. But that’s okay, for him it’s not about understanding depth of field. I never heard him talk about light, and every other photographer I knew would talk about light, they don’t talk about anything else. “I have to go out now, there’s this incredible light out.” Allen didn’t think of that.

AG: Did he have an overall philosophy of photography? Did he ever talk about it?

BR: No, he just took pictures. He was trying different things. He started to branch out with different cameras: he bought a Rolleiflex, for example. He would sometimes carry two or three cameras with him, and he’d annoy people by taking their photograph, by making them sit still.

Like that great picture of Peter Orlovsky’s family where they all look miserable. Well, he made them look miserable! He made them sit for fifteen minutes or whatever. He was doing what he needed to do to get the photograph. He wanted everybody in focus, he wanted their attention to the camera and to him, and it can be like herding cats, if it was Peter’s family. But he makes it happen, and they’re all trying to honor Allen and do what he says. Because it’s Allen.

Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg, Bob Rosenthal & son Aliah, and Gregory Corso – Photo: Rochelle Kraut

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