The writing below the 1953 gelatin silver print by Allen Ginsberg reads, “We went uptown to look at Mayan Codices at Museum of Natural History & Metropolitan Museum of Art to view Carlo Crivelli’s greenhued Christ-face with crown of thorns stuck symmetric in his skull—here Egyptian wing William Burroughs with a brother Sphinx, Fall 1953 Manhattan.” (via

I had no idea renowned Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) was an avid amateur photographer. A current exhibition of 79 of his annotated black and white snapshots are on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The early photos were shot between 1953 and 1963 and rediscovered by Ginsberg in the 1980s. At the time, the great American poet decided to add his cursive script underneath the images to give the otherwise casual images a lot of character — it also makes me wonder how familiar he was with the work of American photographer Duane Michals, who is well-known for that style.

According to the National Gallery, Ginsberg’s annotations were “eager to capture ‘certain moments in eternity’ … [and] he kept his camera by his side when he was at home or traveling around the world.” In 1993, Ginsberg explained that he did his “sketching” and observing with his camera. It is a sentiment I can very much relate to.

After Ginsberg rediscovered his older photographs he became inspired to pick up his camera again, and he began to capture images of his longtime and post-Beat friends. The photographs seem to be less artistic and more historical in interest, and they capture intimate moments with some giants — mostly American, mostly white, and almost exclusively male — of 20th C. arts and letters, including W. S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Francesco Clemente, Gregory Corso, Bob Donlon, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky, and Larry Rivers.

NPR interviewed photographer Elsa Dorfman, who met Ginsberg in 1959 and was a secretary for his publisher, who gives us some insight into why the poet felt compelled to document his life and friends:

… [He] never doubted he would be a great man … And he had the feeling that all his friends were equally genius.

I’m not sure why the National Gallery is exhibiting these images — perhaps they would be better suited to the Library of Congress or some other DC institution — but they are a trove of information about a tumultuous period in American culture.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.