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!

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

 

Jazz Man David Amram Talks About Charlie Parker, Willie Nelson, the Internet, and More

Beat jazz pioneer David Amram has collaborated with Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Willie Nelson, and Charles Mingus. He is a multi-talented musician, composer, conductor, world traveler, scholar, and on top of all that, the first time I phoned the 76-year young dynamo, he was outside fixing a tractor on his farm in upstate New York. Here is the interview I conducted with David Amram during two phone calls that took place on Saturday and Sunday, December 16 and 17, 2006.

Bill: How would you explain the term “orchestral colors”?

David: One of the first people who ever spoke to me of orchestral color was Charlie Parker, in 1952, in my basement apartment in Washington, DC. Parker asked me if I had ever checked out the music of Frederick Delius.

I said, “Bird, we were always told Delius was a minor composer,” because in those days, there was a lot lacking in American music studies, and most music teachers referred to Delius that way.

Bird said, “Check out his orchestration. Frederick Delius was a great orchestral colorist.”

Bill: But what does that mean?

David: Orchestral colors and the art of orchestration is like taking a series of black and white illustrations and filling them in with colors. In symphonic music, those black and white images are the actual notes played; how and who plays them is what you do when you orchestrate something. A composition is like a great painting in that it has contrast, form, takes you to places you’ve never been before, and keeps you wanting more.

Bill: What was Charlie Parker like?

David: Charlie Parker had brilliance and sophistication that the movie Bird didn’t capture. He was very knowledgeable and he was a lifetime student of ‘hang-out-ology’, always learning, open-minded, so he didn’t rank Delius as a “minor” or “major” musician. He heard the music of Delius for what it was. I talk about this is my book Vibrations .

Bill: Your song about Hunter S. Thompson, on the Southern Stories CD, is perfect. It captures Thompson’s life story so simply and yet, so completely. Did you ever meet Hunter?

David: Yes, I first met Hunter in 1959. I had a cabin in Huguenot, New York when Hunter Thompson was a reporter for the Middletown Daily Record. There was a little store I went to for my week’s supply of groceries, and the old man who ran the store hardly said a word, usually just a grunt for ‘hello.’ But finally, one day, the guy said to me, “I’ve seen ’em.”

“Seen what?” I asked.

“The saucer people,” he says. “The flying saucer people in the field across the street.”

“Oh …” I said. “Okay …”

He said, “I’ve only told two people about this. You, and that crazy writer up on the hill.”

Of course, the crazy writer was Hunter Thompson. Years later, when Ron Whitehead and Doug Brinkley organized an award ceremony for Thompson in Louisville, Kentucky, they asked me to be the music director. I had the chance to sit and reminisce with Hunter about the guy in the Superette who saw the saucer people and other, more serious things, as well. Hunter was more than just a crazy Gonzo character, he was first and foremost a serious writer.

Bill: There is another song on Southern Stories, ‘Alfred the Hog’, where you play a flute solo that knocks me out as much as any electric guitar solo. At one point, it sounds like you are playing two flutes at the same time.

David: Thank you, thanks a lot. That instrument is actually an Irish penny-whistle, and yes, on part of the solo, I’m playing two penny-whistles at the same time.

Bill: How did you learn to do that?

David: It just came naturally.

Bill: That figures.

David: The penny-whistle is a versatile instrument. Just as a violin can be used for either classical or bluegrass, the penny-whistle can be used different ways. Audiences in Kenya enjoyed it when I went there for the World Council of Churches and played African music in 1976. Dizzy Gillespie dug how I used the penny-whistle as a jazz instrument when I played with him in Havana in 1977.

Bill: You composed the soundtrack for the original version of The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. I read that Frank Sinatra, the star of the movie, was very pleased with the score you created for that movie. Did you meet Sinatra?

David: I met him in New York a few years after making the film. He said he liked the fact that I’m a jazz musician as well as a classical composer, and he was impressed that I write my own music, orchestrate every note myself, and don’t use ghost writers.

Bill: Frank Sinatra, Jr. said that the Manchurian Candidate score was an “ingenious combination of polytonality and jazz.” Can you explain what “polytonality” means?

David: Polytonal means using more than one harmonic pattern, or two separate tonal bases at the same time.

Bill: Yeah, Google says, “Using more than one key or tonality simultaneously,” but I still don’t quite understand it. I thought you could only play in one key at a time.

David: Well, for example, you can play a G7 chord and play a D flat against it.

Bill: No doubt, you can. I’ll have to work it. Moving on, I have to ask you this, because there’s a debate going on among some friends of mine. You know that famous black & white photo of Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, you, and Allen Ginsberg, all sitting in the diner? Is that a spoon or a toothpick you are chomping on?

David: I think it was a spoon, as I used to eat yogurt there, but I really have no idea.

We didn’t know that the picture was being taken and it certainly never occurred to us that 48 years later, it would be on the cover of books, in articles, museums, and so on.

We were all smiling and having a good time, laughing and enjoying each others company, NOT a bunch of surly hating “Beatniks” as the Beats are sometimes portrayed.

Bill: It looks like a fun group.

David: None of us had on the “costumes” that Beat people were supposed to wear. There was no such thing as a “Beat movement.” We were all a group of friends hanging out. Especially Kerouac!

Bill: Who was the little kid in Pull My Daisy that played music with you?

David: The kid was Pablo Frank, Robert Frank’s son. A great little guy. All this is in my book Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac.

Bill: Did you ever meet William S. Burroughs?

David: Yes, many times.

Bill: I wondered why Burroughs was not in Pull My Daisy.

David: He was not what you would call a gregarious, fun guy. He was fun to listen to when he was talking but he was a very private person.

Bill: I saw you on MySpace recently. What are your thoughts on the internet?

David: My kids got me onto MySpace. Thanks to the internet, the generation of my kids have access for the first time in history to all that magnificent music from all around the world as well as the United States. A gifted army of people, who never get played on the radio and whose CDs you can never buy in record stores, now have a level playing field.

You know, the huge record companies are merging in a last desperate attempt to control the listening habits of people all over the world. But with the web and new means of broadcasting, we are now all pardoned from the solitary confinement of the penitentiary of the globalized entertainment industry. My own kids actually draw audiences for their music on the internet without being part of the music industry. Conversely, a lot of the more obscure stuff I’ve done downloaded. Right now, you can go to YouTube and find Pull My Daisy with Italian subtitles!

As artists, we want to share what we do with others. Of course, we have to pay our rent, buy clothes, take our kids to the dentist, so we have to pay bills. That doesn’t mean you have to ruin your art by trying to become a millionaire in two years.

Now days, in baseball, a batter won’t run out an infield grounder. A basketball player won’t make an assist and only want to score points. These players have been forced, by bad advice, to represent what is wrong in their world rather than what’s right.

That’s why I like playing Farm Aid. Willie Nelson and everyone else at Farm Aid share certain traits: Love of music, caring about other people, inspiring others, and a genuine love and respect for the audience. As a result, all of them are fun to be with.

Bill: Man, you really do play all kinds of music with all kinds of people.

David: Anybody can learn to play any style on whatever instrument they play. You just need to be patient, humble yourself to be with those who know more, and learn the basics. It’s a lifetime job. It’s like learning different dialects. Second generation Cubans, for example, have a different kind of Cuban accent than their parents. In the same way, music changes from generation to generation.

Bill: Do you ever compose in your head without score paper?

David: Oh, yeah. Sure.

Bill: Do you ever think something will sound good until you hear it played, and then decide you need to change it?

David: Not really. By the time I get it on paper, it’s pretty much right as far as the combination of notes. I may decide to change the tempo or things of balance, like soft or loud, to make it work the best.

Bill: Do you ever see musical sounds as geometric shapes?

David: No, I just hear it very clearly.