The Beat Generation was the quintessential American literary movement. From Kerouac’s accounts of youthful odyssey against the backdrop of a splendorous landscape of prairies, mountains, endless highways, and cities crackling with energy; to Burroughs’ satirical, absurdist danse macabre of addiction, control, and human debris; to Ginsberg’s naked verse, celebrating candidly and unapologetically the beauty and terror of an authentic life, the Beats not only reflected life in 1950s America with extraordinary honesty—they defined it. Strange then, it seems, that many of the most important works of the Beat Generation were completed—in Paris.
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky first arrived in the Latin Quarter, on the left bank of the Seine, in 1957, and made a run-down roominghouse at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur their home, colloquially calling it the ‘Beat Hotel’. They were followed soon after by Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs, and there met writers Harold Norse and Brion Gysin, with whom they would collaborate for many years to come. This proved to be a very productive period; out of it came Ginsberg’s Kaddish, and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Corso penned ‘Bomb’, The Happy Birthday of Death, The American Express (novel), Minutes to Go with Sinclair Beiles, Burroughs, and Gysin, and Long Live Man
The Beats were not alone, however. During the late 50s/early 60s, many students, artists, poets, and various travelers flocked to Paris, attracted by the bohemian tradition of the Left Bank. In decades past, the same cafes and cheap hotels were frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Loomis Dean (1917-2005) was a Life Magazine veteran photographer, and was on the Left Bank scene in those days. Dean got his start at age 16, when his family moved to Sarasota, Florida, and he visited the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus for the first time.
“Everybody in that vast enterprise had been everywhere and seen everything. They were from 38 different foreign countries. They all wore outrageous clothes and were convinced that they were normal and the rest of the world crazy.”
Living on a train for months at a time didn’t fit his parents’ definition of a ‘normal life’, however, nothing escaped Loomis’ attention during the four months the circus spent in Sarasota.
Dean’s introduction to photography was a chance encounter with a college friend developing film.
Seeing that image appearing mysteriously on the wet paper hypnotized me. … I was hooked, he said. Dean studied photography at the Eastman School of Photography in Rochester, NY, washing dishes to pay tuition. During World War II, he was an Army Air Forces photographer in the Pacific theatre. After the war, he got his first photography job as a press agent and photographer with the Ringling Bros’ Circus. He rode around the country on the circus train, photographing the performers and processing his prints in hotel bathtubs.
In 1947, Dean joined the Life Magazine staff, photographing a range of subjects from Elvis Presley and other celebrities, to royal weddings, wars in the Middle East, Ernest Hemingway, and the Pope (for which he won first prize in a Vatican contest). In 1956, while sailing to Paris to take a job in the Life bureau there, he photographed the sinking of the ocean liner Andrea Doria and the rescue of her passengers, using a camera he borrowed from one of the survivors.
Loomis Dean shot the photographs in the current exhibition “The Lure of the Left Bank”, now on display at the Beat Museum, while working in Life‘s Paris bureau.