Larry Keenan, Photographer

Photographer Larry Keenan in Washington, DC for the The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery exhibit, "REBELS: Beat Artists and Poets of the 1950s." - Photo by Lisa Keenan

Photographer Larry Keenan in Washington, DC for the The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery exhibit, “REBELS: Beat Artists and Poets of the 1950s.” – Photo by Lisa Keenan

Photographer Larry Keenan was there to chronicle the great transition from the “Beat Generation” to the “Hippie Generation” – taking pictures of artists, musicians, and scene-makers like Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Bob Dylan, Michael McClure, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more. Many of these photos are in the permanent collection of the Archives of American Artists in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. That’s enough to make me a big fan, but Keenan has done much more.

He is called a “digital pioneer” in the Random House book Digital Photography and has produced a line of Fractal greeting cards. He was featured on the PBS television program Computer Chronicles digitizing and creating the award winning package cover of Deluxe PhotoLab for Electronic Arts using the Amiga 2000 computer system. His photographs are in museums and private collections throughout the world.

Keenan has received numerous awards and his photographs have appeared in ad campaigns, corporate and professional publications, CD and record albums, books, magazines, and software packages. On top of all that, and to my delight, he is friendly and easy to talk to.

Bill Ectric: How old were you when you started taking photographs?

Larry Keenan: I started in the 7th grade. In those days, I wanted to be a cartoonist and/or animator. My grandfather made me an animation box with the back-light, etc. I drew all the frames for my 3-minute movie. I used my parents 8mm movie camera to film each frame. It worked – the film was in real animation. My parents took us to the opening of Disneyland that summer. While we were down there, my dad had a friend who knew guy in Disney’s orchestra. He arranged for me to take a private tour to visit the Disney Studios. There, I met some unhappy animators, who all told me to do something else. They told me that they were all trapped into doing only their specialty, which might be water, clouds, trees, flowers, etc. They told me there was no variety. When I got back home, a painter at my parent’s remodeled kitchen used to work at DC Comics. He was not encouraging either. I needed variety and I already knew what being trapped was like, living at home. I ended up charging my friends a buck a signature and began signing report cards using my animation box. My first still images were underwater photos I shot with a camera I bought and I used an underwater case I had made for it while in the 9th grade.

Bill Ectric: How did you get involved with photographing the beats, hippies, and other counter culture icons?

Photo by Larry Keenan of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco 1965

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg   in San Francisco 1965, photo by Larry Keenan

Larry Keenan: I had Michael McClure for a teacher at California College of Arts and Crafts. After taking a couple of classes with him, I had great respect for his amazing knowledge and intelligence. I was doing a project with a few friends at school and it was going to be published. I got involved with the project because I wanted a real published piece in my portfolio. A lot of the hypothetical crap in everyone’s portfolio at school was pretty bad. Because my parents were against me going to art school (although they supported me in it), I had a real drive to make it, to be the best I could be. I asked Michael to be our faculty sponsor for our project and he said yes. We met at his house in the Haight in 1964. After the meeting, while we were going out Michael asked me if I would like to photograph some of his friends. I asked him who his friends were and he answered with a list that included Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kesey, Conner, etc.

Freewheelin Frank of the Hell's Angels and Michael McClure in 1966, photo by Larry Keenan

Freewheelin Frank of the Hell’s Angels and Michael McClure in 1966, photo by Larry Keenan

After we got outside, a friend said “going up.” For the next year or so, I photographed the end of the Beat scene. McClure and Ginsberg gave me the access but my honesty, skill and professionalism kept me in good graces with all concerned. Then the Haight-Ashbury and the hippies came out of the Beat movement, so I was well placed to continue shooting the counter-culture. I caught the cultural transition in photographs and that is my legacy.

Bill: Any particular memories about Ginsberg, Dylan, or anyone from that scene?

Larry: All memories from those days are positive. I was treated with respect by the Beats. They were very nice to me, besides they were receiving mounted 11×14 prints every week. I would go to a party with McClure and people would come up to me and ask who I was. I would tell them I was nobody. To my surprise they would say, “No man, you have to be somebody, you came here with McClure.” My only bad experience was when I was shooting Dylan in the City Lights alley. I brought 2 cameras, one for me, and one for a girlfriend of mine. It is long story but to keep it short, she did not come to the session. In the frenzy of the shoot, with the crowd being kept at bay by Ginsberg, I used the camera I brought for her. It had no film in it (she was going to use her own film). When it seemed as if the end of the roll would never come, I realized there was no film in the camera. It said #40 on the film counter and I knew it should only be #36 if there was film in the camera. The first camera was hurried work because I did not know how long we were going to be able to work with these cats. My best stuff was with the camera without film (when I was calmer).

Members of Sexual Freedom League in the 1960s, photo by Larry Keenan

Larry Keenan photo Sexual Freedom League 2 Members of Sexual Freedom League in the 1960s, photo by Larry Keenan

Bill: I know that Dennis Hopper is into photography, and I know you have taken pictures of him. Has he ever asked you for tips or advice?

Larry: No, he does not need my help. He is a very good photographer and artist.

Bill: This question is off-the-wall, but I’ve always wanted to ask someone who is an expert in the field. I once heard a story about a murder mystery being solved because, while the culprit was in the victim’s room, there was a flash of lightning, which burned a photographic image of the killer onto a mirror in the room. Is that possible?

Larry: It really depends on what the image looks like. Anything is possible and I share the same philosophy as Marilyn Monroe. We believe a little in everything.

Bill: I think it’s fascinating how physics and math is intertwined with nature and aesthetics. Like the Fibonacci number and all. Would you mind talking about that briefly?

Larry: I love the fact that art and science go hand in hand. I like how Fibonacci’s number string seems to hit the number of flower petals at least up to 233 or so. Number sequences do not do it for me. Personally, I like how M.C. Escher has worked his art out mathematically. Even more abstract and beautiful are the fractal geometric equations by professors Benoit Mandlebrot and Gaston Julia. The first time I saw a Mandlebrot I recognized it as a primal image. I feel most art is dicks and pussies anyway, so I was not surprised. I have attached two examples each of my Mandlebrot and Julia pieces that I have created in the computer and incorporated into my work. I really loved messing with their calculations to come up with my own work using their math. I did this work on an Amiga 1000 computer in 8 bit.

Shiva (Raven) photo by Larry Keenan

Shiva (Raven) photo by Larry Keenan

Timothy Leary photo by Larry Keenan

Timothy Leary photo by Larry Keenan

Bill: I read that you have a line of fractal postcards. Can you explain what fractal means?

Spiral Jetty Galaxies by Larry Keenan

Spiral Jetty Galaxies, a fractal by Larry Keenan

Larry: Fractal geometry (also known as the Chaos Theory) describes the marks and trails left after chaotic activity that do not vary under different magnifications. Examples of these patterns are all around us, from snowflakes, trees, and landscapes to spiral galaxies and their distribution throughout the universe. I have also attached 2 examples to show scenes I created using fractal geometry in 1991 with 8 bit low-res Amiga system.

Zone Between the Zone, fractal by Larry Keenan

Zone Between the Zone, fractal by Larry Keenan

Origami Birds Flying by Larry Keenan

Origami Birds Flying by Larry Keenan

Nebula Plateau by Larry Keenan

Nebula Plateau by Larry Keenan

Bill: Do you still teach photography?

Larry: Not formally, but I still keep my hand in. I teach a class in pinhole photography in every school my daughter Chelsea has attended (every year). I mentor a couple of artists. One especially is flat-out amazing. Klaus Lange. He is a chef by profession who now works on a pilot ship (as a chef) in the ocean just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. He does excellent impressionistic work with his digital camera shooting the sides of ships. Amazing abstract images. I think his work is way better than Aaron Siskind’s stuff. Type his name into Google to see his work. I would like to teach again, part-time, but I have Parkinson’s. My handwriting is gone and my speech is iffy, although I have recently completed a speech therapy program. I learn a lot by teaching and I miss it.

Bill: Would you care to talk about the Parkinson’s disease?

Larry: So far, my handwriting is gone, my work has not been affected except when I write down phone message, write a check, sign a print, autograph one of my books or write on the back of a print to someone. It has become so small and jagged that I cannot read it. Going on location has become difficult because of all the equipment. I cannot walk backwards easily (pulling a hand truck, etc.) and I have much difficulty going through doors/doorways because I can fall. I take Parkinson’s medicine for the shake and for balance, walking, drooling, etc. I am in 3 studies to help find out how we got this disease. My speech was a real mess, too soft and hard to say words, slurred speech, etc. I found a speech therapist who specializes in Parkinson’s patients. With Parkinson’s, every day is different (I never know when I get up if I can walk or talk). I am also involved in physical therapy 3 days a week. So far my limbs can move just fine, no stiffness. I am not on disability because I love my work and will continue as long as I can. As my former grandfather-in-law used to warn, “try not to get old.”

Bill: Is light a particle or a wave?

Larry: I think it is a wave of particles. All I know is that when I am shooting, I think of light as water. It helps me think of it in real physical terms because of the complexity in lighting a set.

Bill: Is jazz musician David Amram a particle or a wave?

Larry: He is a laser, a coherent light source. David is a genius, an amazing cat. He is very generous with his time talking to young and old alike.

David Amram, photograhed by Larry Keenan

Bill: Do you think digital photography will ever replace film?

Larry: I think film is already out, especially in the smaller formats. I have not shot a film job in over two years. I look back on my work and the best reproduced jobs I have seen are from digital files.

Bill: Where do you live?

Larry: Emeryville, California.

Bill: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a professional photographer?

Larry: Go to Art school, learn to draw, sculpt and paint. Take psychology, philosophy, portfolio and business classes. Make the computer your friend. Photoshop classes are a real must. No one asks you if you are any good at Photoshop, they ask how long you have been doing it. Like drawing, it is mileage with the pencil. So, put miles on the mouse. Assist a working pro that you respect. Be social, this is where I failed. My special effects projects took so much of my time that I had to do them between marriages. The projects cost me friends because I was working day and night, weekends too.

Bill: That also sounds some excellent advice. Thank you. Larry, you’ve been very generous with your time, answering these questions. I want to say again how much I enjoy your work, both the early stuff and the new. I’m anxious to see what you do next!

Hettie Jones: Prisons & Poets

Hettie Jones on Prisons and Poets

This article originally appeared on Literary Kicks, May 1, 2008

 In New York’s Greenwich Village, from 1957 to 1963, poets Hettie Jones and her then-husband LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) published a magazine called Yugen, showcasing poetry and writings by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and others. Hettie also started Totem Press, which published poets such as Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Frank O’Hara, and Edward Dorn. Jones is currently involved with PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Committee and teaches writing at the New School in New York. She also runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills. The Bedford Hills workshop has published two books of poetry, More In Than Out and Aliens At the Border. I purchased a copy of Aliens at the Border and I agree with Bibi Wein of the PEN American Center when she says, “Each of these women has a unique voice, and the writing is luminous, surprisingly lyrical, tender, and hopeful as a candle in the dark.”

You can enter Shelby’s Coffee House from the Laura street, or through the new Downtown Public Library in Jacksonville, Florida. I arrived early, hoping I could meet Hettie Jones in person before she took the podium. It paid off. Hettie arrived an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, accompanied by a guide from the city. I introduced myself and she invited me to sit at her table while library staff rearranged the chairs and tables to face the microphone.

“This is a beautiful library,” she said. “With a great children’s section.”

When I gave her a brief summary of the revitalization projects of downtown Jacksonville, Hettie’s first question was, “Has anyone been displaced by all the new construction?” I told her I didn’t think so, but didn’t know for sure.

I said I was interested in her prison writing classes, and wanted to if she would be talking about that aspect of her work. Jones said she wasn’t really supposed to talk about anything but the Beats.

“That’s what they brought me here for,” she said.

“Will you take questions from the audience later?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said.

“Well, then, if I raise my hand and ask about Bedford Correctional, they can’t blame you for talking about it.”

“True!” she said.

I apologized for being a pest, but I wanted to talk some more, in case we ran out of time later. Hettie is as cool as anyone I’ve ever met.

“No, it’s quite all right,” she said. “I like talking about the prison workshop. It’s important to me. The thing about teaching in a correctional facility is, you accept people for what they want to become, not what they have done in the past. I got my start in 1988 when I got paid $50.00 to teach a prose workshop in Sing Sing. It went well, but the funding ran out. Soon after that, I got the chance to teach at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, and I did that for about a dozen years.”

“Is that through PEN?” I asked.

“No, PEN is different. I was elected to PEN in 1984, and because of my involvement with prisons, PEN insisted that I join their Prison Writing committee.”

Aliens at the Border, Edited by Hettie Jones   Doing 70 by Hettie Jones

  By now, most of the chairs were filled and it was time for Hettie Jones to speak to the audience. She gave a brief introduction to the Beats, and spoke about several key players individually, reading a sample of each writer’s work.

“I first met Allen Ginsberg,” said Hettie, “When I was 24 years old. Allen needed to hear the Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, to help with the poem he was writing. He had never learned it. LeRoi brought me over to Allen’s place because I knew the Kaddish. And here you have a good picture of how the Beat movement mixed people from different backgrounds together. Here I was, a Jewish girl disowned by my parents for marrying a black man (LeRoi Jones), chanting the Kaddish to a homosexual poet who would later become a Buddhist!”

Speaking of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, Hettie explained that Jack didn’t say that writers shouldn’t rewrite or keep journals. The best thought may be the best thought, and you write that thought in a journal, but you still must “Edit, edit, edit. And that is a hard lesson to learn.”

Asked about LeRoi Jones’ relation to the other Beats, Hettie said, “The fact that he was a black man was less important than the fact that he and I were publishing people.”

Someone wanted to know about William S. Burroughs. Hettie said that Burroughs was a loner, didn’t hang out at parties, and was hard to know. “Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, although gay, still had female friends to whom they showed love. Burroughs seemed to have no use for women at all.”

I raised my hand and asked if there were any paid positions for teachers in prisons.

“Nobody wants to pay you to do it,” said Hettie. “You have to raise your own funding. That’s what I did. Prisons are like little fiefdoms. It’s hard to get in the door. Most prisons have an Office of Volunteer Services, and that would be the place to start. If you teach at a university, it’s a good antidote to go teach at a prison for a while. The poetry is as good, sometimes better, than poetry written elsewhere. It’s rewarding. You go in with the attitude of accepting people for what they want to become, not what they have done.”

How I Became Hettie Jones    Hettie Jones detail from book cover

The last questioner asked if their were any writers today that Hettie would compare to the Beats.

“We have one running for President,” she said, to a smattering of applause, referring to Barack Obama.

“We have many good poets today,” Hettie continued, “And a lot of them are not coming from universities. In New York, we have the Bowery Poetry club run by Bob Holman, a dear friend of mine. We have the Internet. We have Hip Hop. We have Def Poetry on television.”

After the event, I had one more question. A friend of mine wanted to know if there was ever a rivalry between Hettie Jones and Diane De Prima. This was a sensitive subject because both women had been involved romantically with LeRoi Jones during the fifties. I got up the nerve to ask.

“You should just tell your friend to read my book, How I Became Hettie Jones,” she said. “I tell all about it in the book.”

 

Excerpts of: William Burroughs, “The Western Lands”

The Western Lands    Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00020]

Today, instead of writing my own post, I’m sharing a post from Rudy Rucker’s blog, which begins:

Some notes on the book’s contents.
(1) The “Western Lands” of the book’s title come from Egyptian mythology about the afterlife. Supposedly, beyond the Land of the Dead, lies a heavenly Elysium: the Western Lands.
(2) Burroughs often goes off on these great riffs like you’d find at the start of a story or novel—such as a detective story, or a science fiction tale, or an exotic adventure novel about explorers in the jungle. He slips smoothly into the genre conventions, but then begins warping them, and ultimately he drops the riff once he’s gotten all the juice from it that he wants. He just about never bothers to really wrap up a sequence or bring it to a full conclusion. I especially noticed a lot of great science-fiction twists.

Source: Excerpts of: William Burroughs, “The Western Lands”     Read More

 

Adventure Time

Adventure Time collage

Adventure Time might be the hippest cartoon on television. The art and animation are the stuff of dreams, the writing is witty (sometimes hilarious), but those two givens are only the beginning.

Amid the zany adventures are moments of adolescent angst and parental regret, and sublimely understated songs that display a talent for lyrics, melody, and musicianship. The duet between Marceline and Ice King in season five’s “I Remember You,” is more stunningly poignant than any Disney movie song I can think of. And check out where Marceline could have been strumming the guitar, but someone made the unusual decision to make it a subtle jazz bass riff.

The people behind Adventure Time also know a thing or two about the literary experiments of counterculture movements like The Beats,  the jazz poets, and Hip Hop. In “Thanks for the Crabapples, Giuseppe” (the thirteenth episode of the sixth season), Ice King and a band of misfit wizards take a road trip in a bus with the goal of creating their own secret society. The bus driver asserts that this trip will be “a destiny will guide us kind of thing.” That, and the wacky assortment of characters on the bus, made me think of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967), which, in turn, was inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, whose mission in the mid-sixties was to drive across the United States in a multi-color, hand-painted bus, spreading peace, love, music, and psychedelic shenanigans wherever they went. Check out the three Nymphs, whose bodies seem to be made of flowing water. It is a beautifully trippy effect.

At one point, the bus stops and all the passengers engage in writing poetry on rolls of toilet paper, which I take as a reference the continuous scroll of paper that Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road so his words could flow like improvisational jazz.  The character known as Abracadaniel says, “Let’s all write down arcane, cryptic words in unexpected new combinations and patterns.” Kerouac’s friend, William S. Burroughs, was known for recombining words with the “cut up” technique invented by Brion Gysin.

Notice that these wizard activities involve writing. Writer Alan Moore  has said, “In all of magic, there is an incredibly large linguistic component.” When Peter Bebergal  interviewed Moore for The Believer magazine, Moore said, “I don’t think there’s really any difference between art—or writing, or music—and magic. I particularly draw the link between magic and writing. I think that they are profoundly connected” and “The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody.”

Several episodes on Adventure Time feature characters rapping, beatboxing, and dancing. Finn does a beatbox rhythm to keep the beat for a song sung by Marceline in It Cames From the Nightosphere (Season 2, Episode 1). In “Billy’s Bucket List” (from the fifth season) Finn and Rap Bear compete in an onstage “rap battle.” Even the shows that don’t include rap and beatboxing are informed by a kind of Hip Hop vibe. Characters say “That’s how we roll” and “let’s bust it” and various other slang terms like “I’ma,” meaning “I’m going to,” as when the Ice King is angry about not being invited to a party. He says, “They’re gonna do me like that? So I’ma do them like this!” (From “Princess Potluck,” the eighteenth episode in the fifth season).

I’m sure Adventure Time isn’t the only animated series that meets my description of “hip,” with its postmodern approach and heartfelt enthusiasm, but to me, its the best one.

Vintage Crawdaddy! William S. Burroughs interviews Jimmy Page

Jimmy Page and William S. Burroughs, from the cover of Crawdaddy, June 1975

Via End of the Gamehere’s a vintage 1975 article from the world’s first and greatest rock’n’roll magazines, Crawdaddy in which Beat writer William S. Burroughs interviews Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page!                   Read more here

 

 

 

 

 

The Beat Goes On

My interview with musician/composer David Amram has been selected as one of the 18 pieces in this new book from Literary Kicks.  Read all about it at Amazon.com:

Literary Kicks, a website born in 1994, was there to witness it all, standing at the crossroads of emerging Internet culture and Beat inspiration.

Here’s the tale of Levi Asher’s audition for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of ‘On The Road’, and John Perry Barlow’s touching explanation of how Neal Cassady inspired the Grateful Dead song “Cassidy” . . . W. S. Merwin and Allen Ginsberg get into a heated argument over forced nakedness as Buddhist prayer, Patricia Elliot describes William S. Burroughs’s funeral in Kansas, and Michael McClure describes, on the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary Six Gallery poetry reading, what it all meant . . . 

Read More

 

Interview with Photographer Larry Keenan

Left: Detail of a photo by Larry Keenan (Robbie Robertson, Michael McClure, Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg). Right: Photo by Lisa Keenan of Larry Keenan in Washinton, DC at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery exhibit, "REBELS: Beat Artists and Poets of the 1950s."

Photographer Larry Keenan was there to chronicle the transition from the “Beat Generation”  to the “Hippie Generation”  – taking pictures of artists,
musicians, and scene-makers like Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Bob Dylan, Michael McClure, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more. Many of these photos are in the permanent collection of the Archives of American Artists in the
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

This interview took place by email sometime around 2005 or 2006.

Bill Ectric: How old were you when you started taking photographs?

Larry Keenan: I started in the 7th grade. In those days, I wanted to be a cartoonist and/or animator.  My grandfather made me an animation box with the backlight, etc. I drew all the frames for my 3-minute movie.  I used my parents 8mm movie camera to film each frame.  It worked – the film was in real animation.

My parents took us to the opening of Disneyland that summer.  While we were down there, my dad had a friend who knew guy in Disney’s orchestra.  He arranged for me to take a private tour to visit the Disney Studios.  There, I met some unhappy animators, who all told me to do something else.  They told me that they were all trapped into doing only their specialty, which
might be:  water, clouds, trees, flowers, etc.  They told me there was no variety.   When I got back home a painter at my parent’s remodeled kitchen used to work at DC Comics.  He was not encouraging either. I needed
variety and I already knew what being trapped was like, living at home. I ended up charging my friends a buck a signature and began signing report cards using my animation box.  My first still images were underwater
photos I shot with a camera I bought and I used an underwater case I had made for it while in the 9th grade.

Click here for the entire interview