The Beat Generation in Its Natural Habitat
Burt Glinn shot the Beats in New York’s jazz clubs, coffee shops and Village bars.
June 26, 2018
“There’s a big party at some painter’s loft, wild loud flamenco on the phonograph, the girls suddenly become all hips and heels and people try to dance between their flying hair. Men go mad and start tackling people, flying wedges of whole groups hurtle across the room, men grab men around the knees and lift them nine feet from the floor and lose their balance and nobody gets hurt, blonk.”
That’s Jack Kerouac writing in 1959 for Holiday magazine, in an essay titled “And This Is the Beat Night Life of New York.” What jumps out at you is the swirl of motion, the men and women defined by a few darting strokes. What doesn’t jump out, but is just as present, is the artful construction of the Beat Generation in the public consciousness. These bohemians put a lot of effort into explaining themselves for the mainstream they shunned. Burt Glinn, the Magnum photographer who took the pictures accompanying Kerouac’s essay, was one of many midwives in this creative process.
Helen Frankenthaler working on an abstract expressionist painting in her studio in New York in 1957.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
Half Note bar in New York, the jazz hangout for the Beats, in 1959.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
Glinn, who died in 2008, shot the Beats in their natural habitats in New York and San Francisco from 1957 — the year Kerouac published “On the Road” — to 1960, the year after the sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and its beatnik caricature Maynard G. Krebs put bongo bohemia into suburban living rooms. New York was a smaller city then, and writers and jazz musicians and painters and fresh arrivals from anywhere all closed the night in the same Village bars or Times Square hamburger joints. A single table at the Five Spot jazz club, as captured in a well-known shot by Glinn, might seat the painters Helen Frankenthaler and Larry Rivers, the sculptors David Smith and Anita Huffington and the poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara.
In Glinn’s images, as in others, the Beats lived mostly in evocative black and white — aloof, interior, maybe a little buzzed. They’re stolen slices of Kerouac’s kinetics. Then a few years ago, Glinn’s widow, Elena Prohaska Glinn, was going through slides for a retrospective of his work and showed the publishers a trove of color images — warmer, less distant, more casual, less go-cat-go, more open to visitors.
New York City, 1959.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
A jazz spot in New York.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
Hugh Nanton Romney at a poetry and song night at the White Horse Tavern, 1959.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
“Magazines always wanted the black-and-white,” she said, “but the color held up very well.”
So well that they now provide the fresh material for a book called “The Beat Scene
,” due out in the United States in July. For Glinn, who also photographed revolutionaries in Cuba and desegregation pioneers in Little Rock, Ark., hanging out with the Beats was fun work. “He made terrific friends,” Ms. Prohaska Glinn said. “That wasn’t dodging bullets or living in the same clothes for 10 days.”
And as Kerouac wrote, nobody gets hurt. Blonk.
The Times needs your voice. We welcome your on-topic commentary, criticism and expertise.
Barbara Moraff reading at Seven Arts Coffee Gallery, 1959.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
Allen Ginsgerg, Gregory Corso and Barney Rossett in Washington Square Park.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
A poetry reading by Ted Joans at the Bizarre, a coffee shop, in 1959.Burt Glinn/Magnum PhotosAlexander Kaldis talking with Willem de Kooning in his studio, with Anita Huffington and Larry Rivers in the background, 1957.Burt Glinn/Magnum PhotosThe writer LeRoi Jones with his newborn child.Burt Glinn/Magnum PhotosJack Kerouac after a reading.Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
Follow @nytimesphoto on Twitter. You can also find Lens on Facebook and Instagram.
John Leland, a Metro reporter, joined The Times in 2000. His most recent book is “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old,” based on a Times series. @johnleland