Writer William S. Burroughs took thousands of photographs from the 1950s to 1970s, but it’s likely you’ve not seen many as even he didn’t treat them like an art, but a mode of disrupting time. “Take — Rearrange — Take,” was his photographic objective written down in 1963.
Earlier this year at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, Burroughs’ photographs were shown alongside exhibitions on the photography of David Lynch and Andy Warhol. Out of the trio of the famed figures known for non-photography work, Burroughs was the only one not practicing with visual art in mind. At least that’s what’s argued in Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs, co-published by the Photographers’ Gallery and Prestel and co-edited by curators Patricia Allmer and John Sears alongside the exhibition. Beat Generation biographer Barry Miles writes in his essay in the book:
Burroughs was not making these photographs of collages for artistic reasons: his intentions were far more radical. Although Burroughs showed a very well-developed formal sense of composition, and often played with bands of sunlight and shadow across the collages, his intention was nothing less than to create a vehicle to remove him from the space-time continuum.
Burroughs passed away in 1997, with a counterculture legacy of depraved, disjointed literature like his 1959 Naked Lunch, as well as a complicated persona of a gentleman in grey suits disrupted by drugs and a love of guns. The title of the book and the exhibition — Taking Shots — is a “triple entendre” for his photography, heroin addiction, and firearm fixation, which notoriously resulted in the death of his wife, poet Joan Vollmer, before she was 30 in a drunken game of William Tell. Perhaps not the most tasteful title considering how the horrible tragedy has too often been turned into another part of his mythology, but at least it’s not forgotten.
The photographs themselves range from fragmented self-portraits where he plays with the distortion of mirrors and collaged images masking his face, to assemblages of mass media arranged with a detailed deliberateness, to sequences of car crashes and a rumpled bed. Part of his photography was a belief in its power to unsettle reality. He wrote in 1989:
I have frequently observed that this simple operation — making recordings and taking pictures of some location you wish to discommode or destroy, then playing recordings back and taking more pictures — will result in accidents, fires, removals, especially the last.
So woe to any place of business that dared offend him, as in 1972 he staged his attack with camera and recorder on both a Scientology Center and the Moka Bar in London, where he was irked by “outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake.” He spent weeks taking audio and photographs at each place, returning and playing back recordings on different days, making a collage of time. Both incidents turned out in his favor with the businesses moving out, although it is very possible he may have frightened away some patrons.
Both the book and the exhibition coincide with the centenary of his birth in 1914, a good excuse to bring some of his lesser known exploits into focus when analyzing his work as a whole. While some of the photographs from his trips to London, New York, Tangier, and Paris just feel like cheaply processed snapshots of the streets and friends, made important by the fact he was friends with icons like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (the better Beat writer-turned-photographer you could argue). Yet the collages are often compelling in their play with the “cut up” style that Burroughs was known for in his literature, and the linear sequences where the front of a truck crumples or even a TV changes channels hint at how often his real interest in time was in how we so quickly lose it.
Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs is co-published by the Photographers’ Gallery and Prestel.