Sunday, May 3, 2015

There are Angels in the Street: The Beats, Street Photography & Me

Angels Alone in the Crowd (Melbourne Australia March 2012)

A long time ago, I saw a book in a shop window. The cover caught my eye, as did the one word title. It was Kerouac by Ann Charters. A biography of the so-called leader of the Beat Generation. I went in and bought the book. And it changed my life in so many ways. 

Many of Kerouac's novels are now recognized as classics of mid 20th Century American literature and they heralded the rise of the Beats and then the hippies. They spoke to a generation of young people who, hungry for freedom, took to the road, wrote poetry, explored Buddhism, drank wine and sought out any adventure that the road threw up.

Anyway, I read that book several times and it confirmed for me the sense I already had that my life would be lived on the road, and it encouraged me to carry on trying to write poetry (and to a lesser extent drink wine and seek out adventure).  Of course I then went on to read the road book to end all road books On the Road, the novel for which Kerouac is most known and which even now remains hugely popular. The immediacy of the writing and its jazz rhythms, make reading the book an experience to remember.

Since that first encounter I have read almost all of Kerouac's writing and a large number of books about him and other members of the so-called Beats. One of the biographies I read (several times in fact) is Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia. Along with many other Beat enthusiasts, I think this is by far the best Kerouac biography. (Read it, even if you are not interested in Kerouac or the Beats; it's a wonderful book in its own right)

In a very real sense it is my study and reading of works by and about the Beats that has informed much of my thinking about street photography and the vision for it that I have developed over the years. In my latest reading of Memory Babe (don't you just love that title?), one paragraph in particular struck me as being perhaps an idea that had "sunk in" the first time around and went on to help form my thinking: 
There is no understanding of these incipient "Beats" at this point in their lives (the late 40s) without referencing to their overwhelming sense of the holiness of the street, which is to say the holiness of every spot of ground trod on by man (ie human beings).
The Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the 19th Century, put forward the notion that the divine is present in nature and in humanity, and that we can experience this divine essence by engaging with and learning from the natural environment. What Kerouac and the other Beat writers did in their writing and in the way they tried to live their lives was to extend to the urban environment this same quality of the divine (I should add here that the early Transcendentalists would probably have rejected this idea: for them it was nature that was where the divine could be experienced as an antidote to the dehumanizing and spirit poor "man made" institutions, modern technologies, cites and towns.).

The beats (like the Transcendentalists before them) proposed the idea that it was not only the environment that was holy, but that the people who inhabited the environment (those who spent their lives on the street in whatever capacity) were also holy. For Kerouac and the others, these people, especially the "beat down" ones are angels. Poet Allan Ginsberg even had his own definition:
Angel: A being who is as evolved spiritually as he is degraded in body
For the beats, especially for Kerouac, the more beaten down by life a person was, then the more angelic they became. Of course there are many ways to define being beaten down by life, and it would be a very rare person who hasn't felt totally beat at some time or other, whether they are in dire straits and homeless, alone and in deep poverty, or have a cushy job, nice house and loads of money, family and a "good life". 

As a rule, I don't photograph people who appear to be really beat down such as homeless people. Nor do I photograph anyone who is in a severely distressed or otherwise vulnerable state. But, occasionally, I find I have photographed a person (or people) who appears to have had a tough time, who maybe gives off a "vibe" of being tired or fed up or just plain sad with life, or their day or their partner, or whatever. This is, of course, an essential aspect of the human condition: to be tired or fed up or sick of the way things are. It is just the way life is.

At any rate, I have over time, noticed the occasional appearance of the word angel in a title that has popped up for an image I'm working on. The photo above is just one example. This couple seemed to me to be tired and perhaps upset about something. Maybe they'd had a tiff? Or had received some bad news? Or maybe they were breaking up? Who can say? Whatever the truth, they appeared to me to be beat.

In a funny sort of way, I think of all the people I photograph as angels of one sort or another. Like I say, we've all felt beat at one time or another haven't we? Also, angels are known to bring messages to people, and I reckon most if not all the people who grace my photographs with their presence have something to say to me.


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