From Attic to Archive

A trove of rare photographs of the Beats finds a new home.

On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" publicly for the first time and blew the lid off post-World War II American poetry. Sharing the bill with Ginsberg that night at the 6 Gallery in San Francisco were Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. Kenneth Rexroth was the emcee, and Jack Kerouac perched on the edge of the stage, urging Ginsberg on with exuberant shouts of "Go!" at the end of each line of the poem. The scene would have made a great picture, but no photographs of the event have ever surfaced.

At least one person in the audience of more than 100 sensed a missed opportunity. Walter Lehrman, a young grad student at UC Berkeley and a friend of the poets, had recently purchased a Rolleicord camera with little more than a hobbyist's interest. He hadn't thought to take his camera to the 6 Gallery, but the explosive performance inspired him. A few days later, Lehrman invited Ginsberg to his Berkeley apartment for the poet's first post-Howl portrait session.

Lehrman photographed Ginsberg, Kerouac, and several of their friends over a brief period--from mid-October 1955, just after the 6 Gallery Reading, until June 1956--but it was a critical time as young poets from around the country converged on the Bay Area to create what came to be known as the San Francisco scene. Lehrman was an amateur photographer, but his straightforward pictures are some of the most telling, relaxed images we have of the Beats.

View the photo gallery and read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.