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Ginsberg offers rare peek with beatnik family album

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Allen Ginsberg
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Allen Ginsberg is the subject of a picture taken by William S. Burroughs on a rooftop in New York City, 1953.

It can be easy to be jaded about the Beat writers in San Francisco, but even the most indifferent literary snob would be hard-pressed to walk away from "Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum without feeling fuzzy inside.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and running through September, "Beat Memories" is a collection of about 80 photos taken by Ginsberg and his friends in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s.

Nearly every image is notated with the wobbly handwriting of Ginsberg, who added paragraph-length captions to the images in the 1980s at the prompting of his archivist Bill Morgan and photographers Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott.

The photos are taken in bedrooms, on rooftops, in exotic countries, in photo booths and in Parisian attics. All of the usual suspects are there: Ginsberg's lover Peter Orlovsky, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Herbert E. Huncke, Lucien Carr and a fantastically rumpled, dogged Bob Dylan.

Although he rocketed to fame with the publication of his poem "Howl" in 1956 and bounced around the globe, Ginsberg kept his friends close. The photos are often casual and domestic, a testament to the impassioned camaraderie and intimacy the Beats shared.

Under a shot of Burroughs supine on a bed, naked but for his white underwear, Ginsberg wrote: "Bill Burroughs in back bedroom waiting for company ..."

Ginsberg's scrawled notes are charmingly detailed and frank. On an image of Burroughs pontificating to a pensive Kerouac — Burroughs' palm is face up at the end of a languid wrist — Ginsberg quotes Burroughs: "Now, Jack, as I warned you far back as 1945, if you keep going home to live with your 'Mémère' you'll find yourself wound tighter and tighter in her apron strings till you're an old man and can't escape ..."

The static snapshot transforms into prophetic cinema: Kerouac's relationship with his mother was fraught, co-dependent and lasted a lifetime.

One famous image of Kerouac is in the show — Jack howling at the camera, with New York a blur behind him — circa 1953. Ginsberg also caught Kerouac ravaged 11 years later, slumped in a chair, a "red-faced corpulent W.C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror and grimacing on O.M.T. I'd brought back from visiting Timothy Leary."

Reading Ginsberg's priceless captions is an homage to memory and a puzzling, mysterious mix of things human brains remember: raindrops on laundry, rent prices, addresses, routines, friends and passing philosophies.

In "Beat Memories," the images and his recollections are a glimpse into Ginsberg's tenderness, and into a world of collective minds that fueled each other.

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg

Where: ContemporaryJewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays-Tuesdays, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, closed Wednesdays; show closes Sept. 8

Admission: $5 to $12

Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org