From the archive: Harry Redl, Photographer to the Beat Poets

By Alex Rose

Harry Redl had a keen eye for cultural dissonance. 

An Austrian serving with the German navy in the Baltic Sea, Redl was captured by the Americans in 1945. After the war, he emigrated to Canada, taking various jobs in Vancouver: waiter, logger and shipping clerk. In 1956, hoping to freelance as a photographer for Life magazine, he bused to San Francisco, ground zero for the Beat Generation. 

Redl was astonished by the energy swirling around him there and stayed to set up a studio in North Beach, where he befriended and photographed the angel-headed geniuses who rejected the button-down repression of post-war North America. Brandishing his $100 Rolleiflex, Redl would take more than 8,000 photographs over the next three years (1957-60). His black-and-white portraits—natural light and settings—document the now-famous bohemians in their habitat. 

In a 1957 shoot, Redl snuck his camera into the visitor’s room at San Quentin to snap a wary Neal Cassady, then serving three years for possession of marijuana. Cassady was no intellectual, Redl recalls in an interview in his West Vancouver studio, “but was the bisexual bad boy of the Beat Generation—a good-looking truck driver and conman who liked to fuck.” 

Cassady was the muse who had driven Jack Kerouac to his typewriter to depict the exploits of his friend. In his book, The Long, Slow Death of Jack Kerouac, Jim Christy describes their first meeting in 1946: “ ….a maniac of energy, and just a plain maniac. His name was Neal Cassady. When the two men met, each met his other half, and they handed each other the ticket to mortality.” One year later they hit the road together in a journey since raised to myth. 

Kerouac’s book On the Road brought Cassady into the pantheon as “that mad Ahab at the wheel,” who compelled a generation to do the same. Redl recalls how the cult picked up elements of jazz, the drug culture and the normal rituals of adolescent seeking which grudgingly admitted to its ranks a few young women (then called “chicks”) wearing black turtlenecks and sandals. 

The poet Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac competed with each other for Cassady’s bed. Madly in love, Ginsberg won out and said so in his poem The Green Automobile, “honking my horn at his [Cassady’s] manly gate.” In a time long before AIDS, Cassady slept with hundreds of partners, male and female. 

Ginsberg was the star attraction of poetry festival held at the University of British Columbiain 1963. My father, Ron Rose, was sent to cover the story for The Vancouver Sun. But, the young reporter was able to file just three inches, “because every other word out of Ginsberg’s mouth was fuck.”

Redl soon met poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose bookstore, City Lights, published Ginsberg’s first book, Howl (1956), an angry indictment of America’s false hopes and broken promises. Howl was seized by the U.S. government under obscenity charges, but the charges were eventually dropped. 

Redl was there to capture it all: the mysticism, energy, the sense of being alive—even if served up with an insistent and self-referential homoeroticism that seemed to exclude most women. Most of all, Redl was struck by the spontaneity of his subjects and their new world. Ginsberg’s doctrine of “first thought, best thought” encouraged him to see as poems all sorts of prose jottings and notebook scribblings, and his belief that poetry ought to provide seamless transcriptions of the mind encouraged him to publish the jottings and scribbles. Far more than window dressing for youthful rebellion, the Beats utilized a new kind of free verse, accompanied by jazz, to proclaim the virtues of sex, drugs and Buddhism. 

Not surprisingly, they offended the literary gatekeepers of the time. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon has but two passing references to Ginsberg, who died in 1997; none for Kerouac and the Beats. But today a new generation of young hipsters in Brooklyn, San Francisco and Vancouver is revisiting aspects of Beat cosmology and art, appropriating and tailoring older ideas for a digital world. 

“Back in those days, Ginsberg was rail-thin,” Redl recalled in a 1999 interview with me. “Allen was such an honorable man, filled with compassion and caring, so convinced of the genius of his friends that he dragged them on to the stage with him so they could make a living.” In retrospect, Redl believes, the Beats rejuvenated literature by returning to the oral tradition. “When Ginsberg stood up and read his poems—such vitality, such rhythm—people sat up in their seats.”

Readings at New York’s Village Vanguard in 1956 attracted a young Canadian student named Leonard Cohen, then studying at Columbia University. One year later, he was on stage at Dunn’s Steak House in downtown Montreal putting his own poems to music, writing morose ballads about love and death in a deep, rough-hewn voice that would change pop music forever. 

But promiscuity, recklessness and madness do not necessarily equate with sunny enlightenment. At least not for Kerouac who, despite new-found fame, rejected the advances of the girls who waited in the pubs — choosing instead to spend most of his time at mom’s house. When Kerouac died, he left everything to the woman he most loved throughout his live — his mother, Gabrielle.

What sad decline. Old friends shook their heads at the fat and surly recluse who seldom ventured out of the house unless to trade punches at the local bar. When Cassady landed in jail, Kerouac refused to send bail money. “I’m no psychiatrist but I think Kerouac was afraid of the feelings he had for Cassady,” Redl says. “It must have tormented him that all his favorite people were all homosexuals, yet he lived with his mother.” 

Cassady died in 1968 at 42. His heart exploded as he ran alongside a train in Mexico. Kerouac himself would die two years later, at 47, of complications from alcoholism.

Sadly, Redl remains largely invisible to many Canadian curators, perhaps confused by the fact that almost all his portraits are Americans. With sneering vituperation, Redl recounted the politically correct parochialism of one North Vancouver gallery director who, after leafing through the archive, had the audacity to say: “Beautiful work. But have you got any more Canadians?” 

Redl died in Vancouver in 2011. In the end, he returned again and again to a subject that haunts any serious artist. Redl dreamed that one day, his astonishing portraits of the Beats would be bound and published in a book—so that a new generation can see for themselves the poets who turned the modern world on its ear.

Coffee shop, Lee Bacchus

Self-Portrait, Harry Redl

Allen Ginsberg, Harry Redl

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