Photos reveal Beat poet's other talent

Celebrated poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) once penned a few poignant words about his dying uncle, Abe Ginsberg, in 1986.

"He was too weak to sip from a straw.... He died a week and a half later. He had whispered, 'I love you,' when I first came in his room."

The passage appeared not in one of his poems, but as a recollection written for a photograph he had taken of his frail uncle, lying in a hospital bed and attempting to muster a salutation with his raised left arm and hand.

A founding member of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, Ginsberg challenged social mores through his words and activism.

His epic poem "Howl," published in 1956, became a controversial meditation on intolerance and sexual freedom, and helped establish his place as a counterculture icon in American literature.

Who knew, though, that he was also a talented photographer?

One person who did was Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photography at the National Gallery of Art. She has organized an engaging exhibition of Ginsberg's photographs at the museum through Sept. 16.

"Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg" presents a remarkable portrait of the Beat Generation and other noteworthy artistic figures during the mid-to-late 20th century.

The collection spotlights approximately 79 photographs, which, until now, had remained largely hidden from public view.

Ginsberg's images speak of friendship and place, and exhibit a sharp awareness of surrounding and strong intuitive sense - much like his poetry.

Moreover, the photos represent one of those rare instances when an artist in one discipline demonstrates a creative side in another medium.

Ginsberg's photography divides into two periods. The first time frame covers from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. The second phase picks up in the 1980s, when his interest trended more toward portraiture.

Ginsberg began taking pictures in 1953 with a secondhand Kodak Retina he purchased for $13. His early photographs are mostly snapshots, processed commercially in a small format for hand-held viewing. About two dozen of these images, taken in New York and San Francisco, chronicle a close-knit group in candid moments.

Snapshots of friends

Beat writers figure prominently in his early works. Jack Kerouac of "On The Road" fame strikes a rugged visage in one photo from September 1953, as he stands on a New York City building fire escape, and grabbing a smoke with a book protruding from his coat pocket. In another shot, sunlight beams stream across seated author William Burroughs, in a quiet, remote moment. Poet Gregory Corso appears in a somewhat comparable vein, reclined on a bed, seemingly lost in thought.

The camera was turned on Ginsberg too. A young Ginsberg sits leaning slightly forward in one view from 1953, grinning at something funny said by the unseen photographer, Burroughs.

Ginsberg's visual education continued during his foreign travels with his longtime partner, Peter Orlovsky.

On a trip to Morocco in August 1961, Ginsberg snapped Corso, Burroughs and writer Paul Bowles, with two students seated behind the trio, standing outside Burroughs' lodging. In a moment of subtle symmetry, Bowles and Burroughs both stand holding cameras.

An appealing intimacy and decided level of comfort flows through.

h Ginsberg's photographs. When asked once about the purpose of his early photos, Ginsberg responded they were "meant more of a public in heaven than one here on earth ... that's why they're so charming."