August 1, 1996 * Vol . 6, No. 7

Harry Redl photograph of beat poet Michael McClure
San Francisco, 1956

Redl exhibits capture personalities of the beat era

By David Morton

Harry Redl is a photographer whose work is likely etched anonymously into the memories of anyone who has read or studied the works of the beat writers of the 1950s - Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other artists based in San Francisco.

Chances are you've come across Redl's portraits - such as a flashlit Ginsberg pointing intently at San Francisco's Sir Francis Drake Hotel at night; or a relaxed Neal Cassady sitting in a San Quentin prison cell. The black and white photographs capture the warmth of the subjects, leaving the viewer with a real sense of who these figures were in their time.

Redl's portraits are the subject of a fascinating show currently on at Vancouver's Exposure Gallery (851 Beatty St.) until Aug. 4. Other portraits of artists, such as Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Ansel Adams, are also in the exhibit.

In a parallel show, Simon Fraser's special collections and rare books has assembled a display of books and other publications which feature Redl's photographs. The display includes some of the landmark works in poetry of the period, by poets whose portraits Redl made, such as Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Kenneth Patchen and Gary Snyder.

Redl, an Austrian immigrant who came to Vancouver in the early 1950s, was returning from a trip to Mexico, when his bus passed through San Francisco. He said he could feel "this tremendous difference in the vibrations." The city's life and spontaneity fascinated Redl and he returned to the North Beach area the next year where he began photographing local writers, painters, sculptors and musicians.

His portraits received minor recognition at the time, but he went on to an illustrious career as an international photojournalist for such publications as Life, Stern, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among others.

Redl lives quietly today in North Vancouver, but his pictures of the beat era captured one of the richest moments in recent North American cultural history. They have recently been displayed in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and New York's Whitney Museum.

Nearly all the photographs reproduced in the SFU special collections display were taken by Harry Redl between 1956 and 1959 in San Francisco. All the books, magazines and broadsides are from SFU library's contemporary literature collection.

"I was so taken by the Exposure exhibit, which opened in early July, that I thought we could celebrate Harry's work through displaying items from our own collection," says special collections assistant Charles Watts, who curated the SFU display.

The contemporary literature collection focuses on works of modern and post modern poetry from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., particularly those of an experimental nature, explains Watts. Beat writers figure prominently in the collection.

"In fact, we house the most complete and extensive archive to be found of the papers and correspondence of Michael McClure, a major figure in the literature of the period," adds Watts. More than 100 other writers are represented including Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth and an extensive collection of Canadian poets and writers, as well as many B.C. poets.
The Redl display is located in the cases near the entrance to special collections on the 7th floor of the W.A.C. Bennett Library. It may be viewed between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, through to Aug. 15.

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