On the Road with the Beats: Larry Fink’s Portraits of a Generation

Untitled, 1958.
© Larry Fink
Untitled, 1958.

With the release of his new book The Beats, Larry Fink writes for LightBox about his fabled 1958 trip in which he photographed a generation of bohemian poets. 

These photographs come from a four-month long trip that weaved through America and down into Mexico. Welcome to my world in 1958 — where I was skating on the thin ice of adulthood.

It might sound strange, but I really need to thank the United States Department of Justice for having me arrested at the border of Laredo, Texas. They found that I was smuggling a quarter-ounce of marijuana. The way that they arrested us — me; my friends Cleon, the drummer; and Ackerman, the poet — was by rounding us up in a kind of road block and motor assault and as we, hands high above our heads, left our Oldsmobile Super 88, Gatling machine guns were being shot in the ground in front and around us. It was an action fitting for 17- to 21-year-old hipster Beatniks.

At any rate, this helped stop me becoming an airheaded wanderer, one without boundaries. I served five years of federal probation under a very kind probation officer, William Guerra. Which, I am convinced, helped me become the photographer I am today.

I consider this book to be a sort of collaboration with Gerald Stern, and so his magnificent poem, “Lilacs for Ginsberg,” comes to mind:

I was most interested in what they looked like dead
and I could learn to love them so I waited
for three or four days until the brown set in
and there was a certain reverse curl to the leaf by
which in putting my finger on the main artery
beside the throat I knew the blood had passed on
to someplace else and he was talking to two
demons from the afterlife although it was
just like the mountains in New York State since there was
smoke in the sky and they were yelping and he was
speaking in his telltale New Jersey English
and saying the same thing over and over the way he
did when he was on stage and his white shirt was
perfect and the lack of air and of light
aged the lilacs but he was sitting on a lily
in one or two seconds and he forgot about Eighth Street
and fame and cancer and bent down to pick a loose
diamond but more important than that he talked
to the demons in French and sang with his tinny voice
nor did he go on about his yellowing sickness
but counted the clusters and said they were only stars
and there were two universes intertwined, the
white and the purple, or they were just crumbs or specks
that he could sprinkle on his pie nor could he
exactly remember his sorrow except when he pressed
the lilacs to his face or when he stooped
to bury himself in the bush, then for a moment
he almost did, for lilacs clear the mind
and all the elaborations are possible in their
dear smell and even his death which was so
good and thoughtful became, for a moment, sorrowful.

This group depicted in this poem, while essentially non-hierarchical, all cluster around the main protagonist, Turk LeClair.

Turk once said, “if you want nothing you get everything.” But I wanted a little bit more than that. So over the years I have managed to amass titles such as professor at Yale University, professor of photography at Bard College, and Guggenheim Fellow.

Turk went on to be an underground legend an unswerving hero of Zen, of the poetry of pure desire. His leavings were children and paintings and a buzzing sense of the possibility of living a life sustained by improvising and a certain grounded craziness.

I, on the other hand, entered the above-ground world aggressively, but also through improvisation and a certain grounded craziness. I went far up into its reaches, working for Vanity Fair, publishing nine books and counting, teaching with hope and verve and trust for 52 years and sporadically being on the “A” list or the “It” list for the flying implied moments that are afforded to you.

But Turk and I shared a constant: the status of being an outsider, clearly stated with a vision of his life, not so with mine, but trust me, my biography is laced with both love and irony. Laced with a massive list of attributes, all which reduce me into a state of disbelief.

Larry Fink  is a professional photographer of 45 years. He has had solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Musee de la Lausanne Photographie in Belgium, and the Musee de l’Elysee in Switzerland, among others.

The Beats, by Larry Fink, is available through powerHouse Books.

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