I didn’t quite expect to confront my own mortality on a lazy Sunday afternoon but that’s exactly what happened after viewing Beat Generation: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg at the National Gallery of Art this weekend.
Beat Generation spans four decades in Ginsberg’s life, tracing his rise to literary fame (and notoriety) and capturing his friends and lovers in quiet, quickly snatched black-and-white moments—William S. Borroughs sitting in a chair, his face mostly obscured by shadows, save for a shaft of light streaking behind him; Jack Kerouac smoking on the rooftop of Ginsberg’s apartment building, with a book tucked into his jacket pocket; Gregory Corso sitting in front of a window, flanked by plants. These portraits of literary giants, before they became literary giants, are poignant because we’re looking at these men the way Ginsberg saw them, rather than as flat, historical figures whose works we read in high school and college.
But the most compelling part of the exhibit was the last room, where we see the last two decades of Ginsberg’s life. Suddenly, his friends are older, balder, a bit more sullen than they were in their youth. And Ginsberg himself goes through profound shifts as well. His hair grows from a dark pompadour to a long, shaggy man, then begins to recede, and goes from gray to white. His body grows bulkier. His glasses become thicker. And his photos change too. The off-the-cuff feel is still there but now there are more self-portraits, rather than group photos. There are more photos of his home life—an ever-present New York Times newspaper and the view from his kitchen window.
What struck me most, as I left the exhibit, was that I just witnessed a man’s life spread out entirely in photographs.
It reminded me that time marches on, whether we want it to or not. And while that forward movement can lead to so much—new jobs, new countries, new accolades, new friends, new lovers—it also means the end of many things. Our loved ones pass on, our friends slip from our lives, our bodies shift and morph until one day, we are no more.
I’m not sure if Ginsberg had any of this in mind when he picked up a Kodak Retina camera at a secondhand shop in New York half a century ago. But I’m glad he had enough foresight to capture and preserve these moments, these essential truths, for another generation to see and experience.