PDN Photo of the Day

Big Beat

There is a lot to study in The Beat Scene, the new book that gathers Magnum photographer Burt Glinn’s images of Beatnik culture in the years 1957-60. Glinn, who passed away in 2008, documented the Beat milieu in New York and San Francisco on assignments for Esquire and Holiday magazines. (In a 1959 issue of Holiday, his photos accompanied an essay by Jack Kerouac, sWe also see images of peripheral figures: musicians at a New York Club, a nude model posing for a painter in San Francisco, and “Upper Bohemians” at a party thrown by Arnold Newman. And there are glimpses of the New York and San Francisco apartments, studios, coffee houses and clubs that were the settings for the scene.

There are many previously unpublished images to scrutinize, including color photographs Magnum publications director Michael Shulman and Reel Art Press founder Tony Nourmand discovered when they were working with Glinn’s widow, Elena, on a forthcoming retrospective of Glinn’s career. Those color photos add both an esthetic flourish and additional layer of information, while also demonstrating Glinn’s skill with color, though he worked mostly in black-and-white.

Glinn’s captions are interesting for their content and tone, and they mark a contrast with the current trend of subjective, experiential documentary photography. They seem like the work of an overseas reporter or anthropologist, with a dry sense of humor. For example: “Diversions in the Beatnik scene frequently take the form of a conversation. Outlandish hats are optional, and even beards are not absolutely de rigueur.” As Shulman notes in one of the book’s essays, Glinn held “a wry detachment but a grudging respect for [the Beats], as seen in his sympathetic photos of a culture that was an outspoken reaction and rejection of the status quo.” (Full disclosure: Sarah Stacke, who also wrote text for the book, is a PDN contributor.) Looking at Glinn’s images, readers might find it impossible to imagine a similarly Bohemian culture could afford to live today in two of the country’s most expensive cities, which will add a wistful quality to the book.

—Conor Risch

The Beat Scene
Texts by Sarah Stacke and Michael Shulman
Essay by Jack Kerouac
Reel Art Press

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