The University of Toronto is now home to the world’s largest collection of photographs by the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg, thanks to a donation by the Larry & Cookie Rossy Family Foundation.
The almost 8,000 photographs housed in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and more than 200 silver gelatin prints at the University of Toronto Art Centre include portraits of music icons Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Iggy Pop, artist William de Kooning and composer John Cage.
Comprising a nearly complete archive of Ginsberg’s surviving photographs, the collection spans the years 1944 to 1997 (from when he was 18 until his death), and includes original snapshots and prints of various sizes. The silver gelatin prints are unique in that they are hand-captioned by Ginsberg. All of these images will be available to scholars and some will be on display.
Allen Ginsberg was an American poet and nonconformist whose influence extended far beyond the United States. Along with his friends Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, Ginsberg was at the centre of a network of writers and artists dubbed the Beat Generation. In the 1950s and 1960s their work and their personal example would forever alter the cultural scene. The Beats also influenced postmodern and avant-garde Canadian poetry.
Although known primarily as a writer, Ginsberg was an avid photographer. The collection includes images of fellow writers Doris Lessing and Josef Skvorecky (who was a professor of English at U of T), photographer Robert Frank, author and activist Dr. Benjamin Spock and psychologist and drug guru Timothy Leary. Burroughs appears in more than 300 photographs. Another frequent subject is Ginsberg’s lifelong partner, Peter Orlovsky.
The Ginsberg prints provide visual insight into New York’s urban landscape from the 1950s to the 1990s. They also document Ginsberg’s international travels to Canada, France, India, Mexico, Morocco, the U.S.S.R. and many other nations.
“This constitutes the ultimate insider group of photographs on the Beats,” says Anne Dondertman, associate librarian for special collections and director at the Fisher Library. “It contains important research material for the study of the life, family, work, travels and friendships of Allen Ginsberg.”
Many of the prints have been digitized and are available via the Fisher Library’s Flickr site at go.utlib.ca/ginsberg and the University of Toronto Art Centre’s (UTAC’s) online portal, which can be accessed from the centre’s homepage at utac. utoronto.ca. This fall, UTAC in collaboration with the Fisher Library will present an exhibition of the Ginsberg photographs.