I visited “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” with some skepticism. As a photography critic, I wondered whether the National Gallery of Art had placed the cult of celebrity ahead of genuine visual artistry. I ended up being somewhat less disappointed than I’d expected. The photographs in this three-room exhibit were taken beginning in the 1950s but were made into prints decades later; the improvement between the deckle-edged, drugstore-processed originals and the moody chiaroscuro of the later prints is clear. Ginsberg’s photographic style is winningly intimate; he proves himself an insider-documentarian who’s unafraid of showing some occasionally frank nudity. Ginsberg worked best in cramped spaces, variously capturing the back of William S. Burroughs’ head in a taxicab and three friends hemmed in by a cafeteria table, and his scrawled captions provide valuable context. Ironically, for someone who broke into the American consciousness as part of a movement that exemplified robust youth, Ginsberg’s finest work in the exhibit is his portrayals of elderly relatives – a dining-room-table portrait of his far-away-gazing paternal grandmother Rebecca, and a moving deathbed image of his uncle Abe.
THE EXHIBIT IS ON VIEW 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. MONDAY TO SATURDAY AND 11 A.M. TO 6 P.M. SUNDAY TO SEPT. 6 AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY, 401 CONSTITUTION AVE. NW. FREE. (202) 737-4215.