ALLENTOWN - Smoking on a fire escape, a railroad brakeman's rule book stuck in his jacket pocket, a pensive Jack Kerouac looks as though he just stepped from the pages of "On the Road" in a 1953 photograph taken by fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg.
Kerouac is less familiar in another image from that year - caught mid-conversation while walking down a New York street, he makes what Ginsberg called a "Dostoyevsky madface," mugging for the camera.
Ginsberg photographed the best minds of the Beat Generation in between the bursts of creativity that produced their jazz-inspired writing: Neal Cassady, Kerouac's model for the Dean Moriarty character in "On the Road," on a bus trip; William Burroughs squinting in the sun; Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside his City Lights bookstore shortly before publishing Ginsberg's graphic poem "Howl."
An exhibit of 34 black-and-white photographs annotated with the poet's handwritten captions, "Allen Ginsberg: Beat Generation Photographer," runs through Nov. 2 at the Allentown Art Museum.
The Beats rebelled against the conservative values of 1950s America, embracing alternative lifestyles and breaking literary conventions with writing more influenced by the spontaneity of jazz than formal verse.
Poet Anne Waldman, who co-founded with Ginsberg the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., said the photographs embody his ethic of "snapshot poetics," capturing the details of a single moment.
"I think the photographs show that it behooves you to be alert and awake and on, actually seeing," she said.
The first half of the exhibit shows the young Beats moving between New York, San Francisco, India and Morocco from 1953-1964.
The photographs, most enlarged to 16-by-20 inches, are candid but not caught when no one was looking - Ginsberg focused on his subjects' faces staring back at him. The intimate images look as though they were snapped after Ginsberg said, "Hey, look at me for a second."
A photograph of Waldman from 1984 shows her and Burroughs squeezed into the corner of a booth in a Mexican restaurant behind a table full of bottles and empty glasses. As they turn toward the camera, Burroughs' metallic tie glints in the light.
Painter Francesco Clemente, sitting on the floor, turns just his face toward the camera, apparently interrupted while working on a canvas in another 1984 photograph.
Curator Jacqueline van Rhyn compared Ginsberg's photographs to portraits by Richard Avedon. "The prints are high quality, but what contributes to their popularity is the personalities they capture," she said.
A 1956 photograph of Ginsberg retyping "Howl" on a portable typewriter in friend Peter Orlovsky's apartment opens the exhibit.
Ginsberg is the subject of several photographs, showing he was not documenting the Beats from an outside perspective. In run-on sentences he scrawled beneath each image in the 1980s, he notes whose hands held his camera.
The handwritten captions set Ginsberg apart from other documentary photographers such as Robert Frank, said David Sestak, a collector whose family owns the Ginsberg photographs on display.
"I thought it was very unique in that there are very few fine art photographers who express themselves with the visual combined with the word, and it was a natural for Allen because he was a writer," he said.
Ginsberg records not only people's names, but also their drug use, whose apartment they stood in and which of their writings had been published at that time.
The later photographs from 1984-1991 are more self-conscious, as the Beats grow into their roles as cultural icons. By this time, Ginsberg had invested in a medium-format camera, resulting in crisper images.
Faces age and ultimately disappear. A "handsome mysterious haired" Orlovsky in 1961 is by 1987 combing his graying hair back from his face, and a short-haired clean-shaven Ginsberg becomes balding and bearded.
Two photographs taken through the kitchen window of Ginsberg's apartment on New York's Lower East Side close the show, offering a last view of the world as the poet saw it. Ginsberg died in his apartment in 1997 at age 70.
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