We tend to think of the Beat Generation in black and white, both because of their words in print and because most imagery of them has been monochromatic. In the dark, smoky basement clubs, bookstores and coffee houses where the Beats thrived in the 1950s, shades of gray just seemed right — color came from their vivid poetry, prose and jazz.
But photographer Burt Glinn (1925-2008) had another view of the Beats. Best known for his images of the Cuban revolution, the civil rights movement, travel destinations and Hollywood, Glinn photographed the Beats in color for Holiday and Esquire magazines, and the results are a revelation. His depictions of musicians, partiers and smokers may seem like Beat cliches — naturally, there are hipsters playing the bongos — but Glinn has captured the moments when those cliches were born. His color photos bring the world of the Beats to life.
“The color was really something,” says Michael Shulman of Magnum Photos, Glinn’s longtime professional home. Shulman is an editor of “The Beat Scene,” a new book of Glinn’s color and black-and-white Beat photos. “People think often in abstractions, and this made them seem more tangible,” he says. In addition to the book, San Francisco’s Beat Museum is about to mount an exhibit of Glinn’s Beat photography.
One of Glinn’s spreads on the Beats for Holiday was entitled “The Upper and Lower Bohemians.” In color, our appreciation of all levels of the Beats’ Bohemia is considerably heightened.
The Beat Museum
540 Broadway, San Francisco