William Burroughs - Car Crash, New York City, 1965
By Matthew Oxley
The Americans are here. Warhol, Lynch, Burroughs; a long overdue collision in these Isles of the raw and - however much we stoic Brits like to deny it - often unrivalled talent born across the pond. Don’t expect these three to work together though, in any way. This is not a collaborative, succinct display of American photography; it is, like I said, a collision. But I don’t think any of them would have minded that at all.
In Andy Warhol - perhaps the name most likely to draw in the crowds - we see a relentless, obsessive desire to record his everyday, long before it became fashionable to do so. With The Factory Photographs, we get a heavy dose of Lynchian magic. We are reminded why David Lynch, insuppressible, widely talented painter, photographer, musician, actor and director, and at 67 years old, the only one still alive and very much kicking (his album, The Big Dream and a short film documenting the lithographic process, Idem Paris, were both released last year), was once referred to as ‘the first popular Surrealist’. His unrelenting, unnerving black & white studies of industrial spaces scattered around the world, in Poland, Germany, New York, New Jersey and here in England, are strikingly moreish. But, it’s our third visitor that comes out head and shoulders above his compatriots.
William Seward Burroughs II would have been 100 years old on February 5th. A number of cities around the world, most where Burroughs resided at one point or another during his nomadic life, will pay homage to this milestone. The Lawrence Arts Center in Kansas City, where Burroughs played out his finals years, will host 50 of his artistic works, most made in the last 16 years of his life. Paris, Morocco, Berlin and New York (which will hold a month’s worth of activities) all feature centenary exhibitions in his honour.
Most famous for his novels Junkie and The Naked Lunch, both brutally honest explorations of the life of a drug addict and for his cultural status as ‘the godfather of the Beats’, his association with photography - at least within the mainstream - is far less known. But it is not his role in history as the famous drug addict, bohemian and homosexual that defines this exhibition, despite its rather unimaginative and predictable title, which hangs greedily onto that addiction, as much as his love for the gun. It is Burroughs’ extraordinary capacity for creativity that is on display. Whereas Warhol’s snapshot photography feels, well, like nothing more than snapshot photography, the spontaneity in Burroughs’ imagery screams the same type of brilliance that deafens the readers of his prevalent and rampant novels and essays. In his defense, the exceptions for Warhol are his stitched pieces, which should really have been the entire focus of his photographic work here. They ooze Warhol’s unmistakable, classic pop-art style, whilst retaining the edgy truth of 70s and 80s black & white photography. But they are scarce, which is a shame, and they only add to the dismay when viewing his endlessly dull diaristic images.
With his own documentation of the every day - a car crash outside his New York home in 1965 for example, seemingly shot from every conceivable angle - Burroughs shows us his unflinching curiosity; a potent desire to uncover and unearth, not just plainly record. You can imagine the scene: chaos, panic, anger and William Burroughs, camera in hand, silent as a cat, scampering in between hurried figures and torn wreckage, his own world unfolding through the viewfinder. This little series is one of the most intriguing of the entire show and perhaps sums up best, the Burroughs mentality.
In 1989 he told critic A.D. Coleman ‘I never take pictures just for the taking of pictures. I want the end product… That’s what I’m really interested in.’ Within the infinite world of his cut-ups, a technique he fathered and perfected with friend and fellow artist Brion Gysin we get, paradoxically, as close to final as the mind of such an unremitting thinker could possibly let us. Sporadic and often nonsensical, but utterly consuming, his experiments with folding and cutting, folding and cutting and then folding and cutting some more was to be a constant theme throughout his life, engulfing not only his photography, but his writings and later on, his paintings too.
Burroughs was meticulous; his photography, just like his writing, was ultimately a wonderfully deft rearrangement and reimagining of reality. He once famously stated that ‘All writing is in fact cut-ups.” You could say, that for Burroughs, all of life was a cut-up. In the end, what this show proves is that he was a man constantly in artistic and creative debate with the world around him. There are few in our history with the credentials and the constitution strong enough to have joined William Burroughs in that debate.
Taking Shots: The Photography of William S Burroughs is on at The Photographers Gallery until 30th March 2014