“We are all continually exposed to the flashbulb of death” – The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg

As one of the first exhibitions in the Capture Photography Festival that begins this month in Vancouver, I went along this afternoon to the Presentation House Gallery to see Allen Ginsberg’s “We are all continually exposed to the flashbulb of death”.  A modern day saying which immediately made me think of Roland Barthes “I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter” (Barthes 1980, p. 14). On the Allen Ginsberg Project website Ginsberg is described as follows: “Renowned poet, world traveler, spiritual seeker, founding member of a major literary movement, champion of human and civil rights, photographer and songwriter, political gadfly, teacher and co-founder of a poetics school. Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) defied simple classification.”

"We are Continually Exposed to the Flashbulb of Death" Allan Ginsberg at the Presentation House Gallery

“We are Continually Exposed to the Flashbulb of Death” Allan Ginsberg at the Presentation House Gallery

This was not an easy exhibit to view and I can’t say that I particularly liked it. I felt uncomfortable and also as if I was intruding on someone’s personal life. The photographs spanned Ginsberg’s entire life and were very personal. I was loaned a printout of all the photographs’ texts, which made it slightly easier to read as Ginsberg’s inscriptions at the bottom of each photo are written in cursive writing, which is not so each to read if the text is slightly below eye level. So I was constantly flipping backwards and forwards through all these pages, while trying to hold my notebook and take notes at the same time. In the end I just gave up on the notes. The majority of the photographs were reminiscent of family photos. One really needed to be there to understand them I think. The gallery’s little pamphlet describes Ginsberg as “A man who was often (self) identified at the margins, whether as poet, homosexual, Jew, Buddhist, druggie, or peacenik – and this list of outsider epithets could go on” which is probably the reason why I struggled with this exhibition as the only epithet that I can vaguely relate to is that of poet. As the pamphlet continues: “he valued the emphasis on “ordinary mind as Buddha mind,” and the idea of allowing ordinary life to be magical, which runs through Zen and Tibetan Buddhist practices.” And a little later: “it should also be recalled that Ginsberg’s camera is also infused by his homo-erotic desires as he laid down his strong libidinal attachments on photo-paper. This is the lover’s longing gaze in the space of sharing, whether snapping his Beat co-conspirators or his life and love partner Peter Orlovsky for the sake of passionate keepsakes.”

However, I did like some of Ginsberg’s portaits of his fellow Beat Generation friends, especially the one of Gregory Corso looking out his attic-room skylight. It is a beautiful chiaroscuro image, with the light falling softly on Corso’s face and hand as he lifts a grape to his lips. The attic-room is in the light, but Corso’s torso is in the darkness.  Another portrait I found interesting was one of William Burroughs. The caption of the image reads “William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover’s eyes, afternoon light in window, cover of just-published Junkie propped in shadow above right shoulder, Japanese kite against Lower East Side hot water flat’s old wallpaper. He’d come up from South America & Mexico to stay with me editing Yage Letters and Queer manuscripts. New York Fall 1953.” Its another chiaroscuro image with light streaming in diagonally over Burroughs as he sits in an armchair looking at the camera. His eyes and nose in the shadow while his forehead and chest are bathed in the sunlight. The diagonal light creates a very interesting dynamic to the image.

I came away from the exhibition a bit jaded from the information overload and felt a little cheated. I think with the amount of captions one had to read on each photograph – many of them ran into paragraphs, this body of work would be better viewed in a book format where one can sit and read through it comfortably.


Allen Ginsberg Project [online] Available from: http://allenginsberg.org/#!/biography [Accessed 22 March, 2015]

Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida Reflections on Photography. Paperback edition. New York: Hill and Wang.

Ginsberg, A. (2015) “We are all continually exposed to the flashbulb of death” The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg (1953 – 1996). North Vancouver: Presentation House Gallery


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