Life & Culture

Unseen Photos of the Beat Generation

Uncovered in a box complete with the manuscript of an essay by Jack Kerouac, the images of photographer Burt Glinn offer an unprecedented look inside the Beat scene

It’s around 60 years since Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac and their literary contemporaries of the Beat Generation were active, and yet their influence resounds throughout late-20th century counterculture and remains very much alive to this day. Burt Glinn was a photographer who, between the years of 1957 and 1960, was granted access to the very epicentre of this movement and created a stunning and comprehensive documentation of what he saw.

His images, however, remained hidden until fairly recently. While working on another book about Glinn, the founder and editor-in-chief of Reel Art Press, Tony Nourmand – along with Elena Glinn and the director of publishing of Magnum Photos, Michael Shulman – stumbled upon a box of negatives, complete with notes from Glinn and the manuscript of an essay by Jack Kerouac. The negatives featured all the Beat Generation greats: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Morris, Frank O’Hara, Willem de Kooning, and many more besides. They’d struck gold.

Here, alongside a selection of these photographs, which are now published in The Beat Scene available from Reel Art Press, Nourmand tells us more about this exceptional photographer and his unique documentation of the Beat Generation.

“Burt Glinn was a photographer with a career spanning more than 50 years. Self-taught, Glinn was versatile and technically brilliant. He worked for Life magazine in the late 1940s before going freelance. He joined Magnum Photos in 1951 – one of the first Americans to do so – and even eventually served as its president in the 1970s and again in the 1980s. Glinn embraced colour photography as well as black and white, and captured crucial moments in history, including the Sinai War in 1956, the US Marine invasion of Lebanon in 1958, the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. He offered searing insight with his social documentary photography, was renowned for his iconic portraits of celebrities such as Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor and was also a highly successful commercial photographer.

“Whatever subject or scene Burt was photographing he would become engulfed in. Unfortunately I never met Burt when he was alive but it seems he had a knack for making things look cool and groovy; the Beats couldn’t have been a more appropriate subject. Essentially there’s no aspect of the Beats that Burt’s photographs don’t cover. What’s really special about them is they capture the everyday life of the Beats, along with your standard East Village bongo and basement parties… In this case the colour photographs are too good to be true – the scenes captured almost look as if they’re staged.

“I have been working with Michael Shulman of Magnum photos and Elena Glinn for a few years now. We first published a book of his photographs of the Cuban revolution, called Cuba 1959. Whilst working on the next book, which was going to be retrospective of Burt’s career – spanning over 50 years – we stumbled upon a box of colour negatives, boxed with Burt’s notes from the time and the manuscript of an essay by Jack Kerouac. Within minutes of discovering the photos it became very apparent that this was a book that had to be published immediately. The retrospective was put on the back-burner but we are now working on it… though I wouldn’t be surprised if we come across something else that demands our full attention in the process!”

The Beat Scene is out now