Larry Fink’s Photos Capture the End of the Beat Movement

Jack Kerouac coined the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948 to describe the cultural movement he and colleagues including Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady were a part of: “a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.” Larry Fink’s photographs, taken a decade after Kerouac named the movement, captures the second wave of the Beats, individuals galvanized by the art and philosophies of the first generation.

When Fink was eighteen years old he moved to Greenwich Village and during that year met a group of artists, writers, and musicians he’s said “desperately needed a photographer to be with them, to give them gravity, to live within them, record and encode their wary but benighted existence.” Fink and his camera traveled with them to Houston and Mexico, and ultimately Fink left the group, citing his Marxist beliefs. The resulting photographs were published by powerHouse Books for the first time last year in The Beats (2014) and are featured in an exhibition that opens this week at Feroz Galerie in Bonn, Germany. 

Although he never fully aligned himself with them, Fink’s photographs echo the spirit of the Beat Generation, or the popular notion of it: instinctive, romantic, spontaneous. The individuals in his photographs fit the stereotype of a beatnik, in their clothes, manner, and action. In The Great Lakes, Ohio (1958), a barefooted man in sunglasses and a classic black turtleneck kneels, playing guitar; another man facing him smokes a cigarette in a jean jacket. They’re distinctive from the other people in the picture, and not just because they’re focused in the foreground—their dark, unkempt clothing and stances of idle repose set them apart from the “normal” passersby who in contrast, are actively going about their lives in typical garb of 1950s America. In Turk and Robert, Monterrey, Mexico (1958) the Beats also stick out, this time shown in a crowd of cowboy hats, sort of slack-jawed and wearing sunglasses and rumpled open shirts. 

Fink has stated openly that the Beat figures he photographed were yearning to be documented, as if aware of their beta status and feeling the need to reinforce their countercultural role through Fink’s photographs. Perhaps this is why they appear so Beat-like—they’re surfing the tail end of a movement; the radical, incendiary stuff has already happened and they’re just living it.

—M.A. Wholey

Larry Fink: The Beats” is on view at Feroz Galerie, Bonn, Jan. 15–Mar. 27, 2015.

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