Brian Graham Interview – part 2

Allen Ginsberg in his kitchen, New York City, 1988 – photo: Brian Graham

Brian Graham on Allen Ginsberg’s photography – continues

JS: I’m interested in Allen and his photographic “eye” – did he know what he was looking for when he was looking at a contact sheet and what he’d want printed?

BG: Robert had a lot of influence over Allen (when it came to deciding what photos to print). But Allen took the pictures, so he knew what he was after. And there are a lot of good ones.He had a quirky kind of sensibility. Like the picture of Lou Reed with the haunting poster of Samuel Beckett to the extreme left in the frame. That’s kind-of a bizarre  picture,  but it’s what he made of the opportunity that he had. Now that I look at the picture after all this time, I’ll see things I maybe didn’t see before. I appreciate it more. Although he took a lot of pictures, he took them in any kind of condition. Some of the negatives were difficult to print because the light could totally be wrong. And so there were a lot of things in shadow or overexposed in other places.

JS: Did he have any feedback when it came to the prints themselves?

BG: Not really. I did a lot of copies of the prints when I first printed them. At the beginning, sometimes he’d ask for two or three prints of a Tangiers picture. I wasn’t so confident in my printing as I was only just beginning to print, so I’d print six. I’d give him three and I’d end up with the other three. When I looked at them afterwards I couldn’t really see the difference. That happens. But when the prints dry, they look ok, even passable. He never really questioned the quality of the prints. He just assumed they were good enough.

Allen was a bit insecure in terms of determining the quality of the prints. Once I went to him and he was signing some of those prints, and I had a print that was kind of damaged, but I liked it – it was a print of (William) Burroughs on the couch, it was a dark, dark picture. I used to use a kind of a bleach on the picture, called potassium ferrocyanide. And you could bleach out a dark area. I made mistakes a lot because it would get away on you and you could damage the print – I learned that from Robert. But I used it quite a bit, and you can make a unique-looking print with it. At the top of the print was the book Junkie, but you couldn’t see it in all the other prints, and I wanted to be able to see it in the background. Something happened to it. I left it in the developer too long. It got a little strange look to it. I brought it. to Allen, it was one of the ones he was going to sign,  and he looked at me and said, “Do you think that’s good enough?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s ok, it’s different.” So he wrote on it and signed it and wrote “Brian’s print”. He didn’t want to be associated with it. It was kind-of funny, but it’s a good print. It’s not perfect, but there are some things about it that are interesting. But that’s the only incident I can think of where he was worried about the quality of the print. He wasn’t trying to make weird damaged stuff.

Looking back now at the prints. it’s too bad there aren’t more bad prints like that one. I kept some rejects, but none of them have that same amazing coincidence of errors.

JS: There’s an argument out there that if one. doesn’t print his or her photos, they aren’t a true photographer. Where would Allen then fall within this argument?

BG: I don’t have any doubt that he was a good photographer. He had talent for it. It’s his photography – it’s nobody else’s  I mean, think of (Richard) Avedon – I’m sure he went in and told the printer what to do, but I don’t thnk he was actually standing there when the print was being made. I learned how to print working for Allen, and through Robert as a medium. A lot of the solutions to some of the difficult negatives, I learned how to print those working with Robert. He had all kinds of difficult negatives.

JS: From my own perspective, I think Allen’s portrait photography is some of his finest work. Would you agree?

BG: He photographed all these people that he came in contact with, that were part of his world. When Harry Smith was living with Allen he photographed him constantly. The there were the photographs he took in his kitchen. It was like his own studio. He’d invite people over, off the street sometimes, and he’d just take their photo, with the Rimbaud poster ending up somewhere in the frame.

Allen Ginsberg’s kitchen at 437 East 12th Street, New York – photo by Gordon Ball

JS: Was there a challenge when printing some of the larger format ones that he would caption?

BG: Handling them, for sure. A bigger piece of paper, but the printing was basically the same. After you’ve printed them so many times though, you got to know these pictures, to know what to do.

JS: Do you have any favorites?

BG: I tend to prefer his vertical pictures. There’s a picture of Julius (Orlovsky) in the woods (St.Johnsbury, Vermont), with one small branch pointing straight into the middle of his forehead, it’s very perplexing. Of the classic ‘fifties pictures, the image of Peter Orlovsky and his younger brother Lafcadio is both tender and holy.

JS: Do you know what kind of camera he was using? Did you get a sense about how much he knew about the camera technology?

BG: An Olympus XA camera, and he had a couple of them. It was semi-automatic; he’d set the exposure, but it had a light meter. He had a Rolleiflex also which is medium  format. He wasn’t really that interested in some of the more technical aspects, but he got it most of the time. He knew after so many times of using the camera what he was doing.

JS: Robert (Frank) must have been a great influence on Allen

BG: Robert had a lot of patience with Allen and with me, with lots of people. But that was what was nice about Robert; he’d never say “forget about it, give it up”.

JS: Was Allen becoming a better photographer over time?

BG: I don’t know if I could say better, he never really changed. It doesn’t really stick in my mind that he changed any, he kept doing the same thing. Maybe he got better at getting the picture, but he took a lot of them. Everywhere he went, all evening, when he went to social events or when he travelled to do a lecture, he’d take his camera with him. When I processed the film and made contact sheets, I knew where he was and who he was with. And then I started to know all of the people. So it was pretty interesting for me.

JG: What was it like to work with Allen?

BG: He was very generous with me, He was always willing to accept and be curious about what you’re thinking. I’d call him up and he’d say to me, “Any blinding ideas today?” He was ready to take information from anywhere, looking for inspiration or whatever.

JG: It sounds like a great learning experience

BG: It was. At the time I was learning, finding my place in the big city. I was being affectetd by his manner, with his nerve, really, just as I was fortunate to work with the artist June Leaf or with the painter Philip Taaffe

JS: When Allen had a roll of film, would he snap a lot of photos?

BG: Allen could be careful with what he was snapping, but when he got into a situation, with Paul McCartney for instance, or (Bob) Dylan, he knew that that was important and he was going to take as many pictures as he could get away with. In that sense, as the photographer you have to take as many photos as you can because you’re not going to get a second chance, it’s not going to happen again.

JS: Were there any variations in printing the photos over the years?

BG: What I would try to do, I’d use a different kind of paper. The papers we had back then – Agfa, Alford, Kodak – if I found I wasn’t getting the result, if the highlights were too blown away, I’d try using different paper that was easier to print on. With his pictures, I was using multi-grade paper because I couldn’t shift filters, change the grade within the exposure. I could make it half the exposure on one grain, and then half on the other. But yeah, it changed. Also, as you gain more experience in the darkroom and talking to other printers and seeing what they were doing, how they did it, that would change how I’d print. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure I was printing it right, so I’d overprint the pictures. In the end, today, they’re acceptable.

JS: Are you proud of the work you’ve done with Allen?

BG: I am. I think it was around 1992, I was processing all that film. And I was throwing away the film-containers. And then one day I thought, “That’s crazy.” Because he wrote on every container. So then I started saving them. Each one is like an original poem, basically. He would give it to me like that (the metal canister in the plastic tube, both written on) and he was strict because he wanted that information on the back of the contact-sheet. So right away you’d transfer that information to the back of the paper before you developed or processed. So he’d have the date, he’d have the characters, it was a great thing to have all that information. He’d sometimes write the camera he used. Leica M6 –  (he pulls one out) – So here (begins reading) – “Gregory Corso at Kettle of Fish bar, Greenwich Village”

JS: Do you ever think of the legacy you left, your role in defining Allen as a photographer?

BG: I’m linked with it. I’m stuck with it. My photography from that time shows it. I made an exhibition of my pictures and called it “Absurdity is King,” which really dealt with the twilight of the Beats and the end of what I call the “absence of luxury”. It was a way of life. a way of looking at the world from the perspective of the Lower East Side and Glace Bay at once. I carry the life style that ensued through our friendship.

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