Harry Redl, Michael McClure, Vancouver January 20, 2006
Photo by Brian Nation
I haven’t seen Redl in a while. I haven’t seen McClure since . . . well . . . never. Never before tonight, that is. McClure performed with “minimalist” Terry Riley at the Chan Centre. Redl was in the audience. I don’t know when Redl last saw McClure. I’ll ask next time I see him. Photographing them was a thrill, I’m telling you. I suppose it was an historical moment. Also there’s a photo here of their spouses. It was a fantastic evening, I thought. I never heard Riley before. His improvisations, in concert with McClure’s poetry, was to my mind perfect and inspiring. I think someone said, “poetry is knowing as many people as possible”. As for “minimalism”, I like it, but not a lot.
Everything’s connected to everything else. Okay . . . not a cutting-edge observation, perhaps, but it’s the deepest thing I know.
I’m thirteen – up late into the night listening to Mort Fega‘s jazz show coming in faint and crackly from radio station WEVD in New York City. Later I find issue number two (1957) of the Evergreen Review at Classic Bookshop on Ste. Catherine Street. It contains a portfolio of full-page portraits of eight San Francisco poets. I study these images. They represent so much that inspires me in this period of my life. Eventually I tear out the photo of Allen Ginsberg and tack it to my wall. There are also portraits of Brother Antoninus, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, James Broughton, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure. All become personal icons. Six years later Ferlinghetti lends me five bucks. One month after that Philip Whalen and I take a walk around the Nitobe Gardens. Forty-nine years later I take a picture of Michael McClure with the photographer of the eight San Francisco poets, Harry Redl.
In April 1998 Mort Fega’s name comes up in an Internet jazz discussion. Someone wants to know about the announcer on the Miles Davis Carnegie Hall recordings. By then I’d exchanged several letters with Fega but it’s been a couple of years. I have his Delray Beach phone number and call him up. His wife answers and then he gets on the phone . . . there’s that voice! Why didn’t I think of this sooner?
“Mort, what a thrill to hear your voice.”
“You must lead a very boring life.”
We chat a bit and I mention the internet thing. He sends comments which I post on his behalf. Towards the end of our conversation he tells me he’s got a friend in West Vancouver that I have to meet. He sends me Harry Redl’s email address. The name rings a bell but live long enough and every name rings a bell. I drop Harry a note, tell him a little about myself. Harry replies, tells me a little about himself. Then lightning strikes. Harry took those Evergreen Review photographs! Within the week he drops by and we go for coffee.
I must have seen his name ten thousand times in my life without it ever sticking in my mind. Every book, magazine article, CD box set, museum exhibit, web site, or anything else celebrating the Beat saga has been illuminated with Harry’s photos. Before long we’re pals more or less, hangin’ out etc., . . . he shows me his archive, barely scratching the surface, really . . . it’s an absolutely staggering collection of about a hundred thousand images. Apart from the famed beat portraits are pictures of seemingly all the great figures of 20th century culture, politics, revolution, history . . . perhaps one tenth of one percent of which have ever been seen by anyone.
“Harry, you had the foresight to photograph all these poets and artists when no one had ever heard of any of them. Now they’re all famous. When are you going to photograph me so I can become famous, too?”
Funny how things happen. An hour later I’m sitting across from him in his living room, jotting something in my notebook when he looks at me and freezes.
He leaves the room and returns with his Rollieflex, and takes this picture:
One day Harry and I were walking down Homer Street, down by the new Hydro Building, near the Del Mar Hotel, when a young couple, obviously tourists, asked if one of us would take their picture, proffering a cheap camera in our direction. I extended my hand towards Harry, inviting him to do the honours. He was his usual gracious self as he directed the pair to stand in such a way that – the background and lighting just so – the photo would reveal everything there was to know about them, where they were, and why they were there. Within twenty seconds he’d taken what I’m sure was yet another work of art. They, of course, would never know, when months later they pasted the print into a cheap album, that they possessed the work of a master. I’m always amazed by the things we don’t know.
“In the mid-fifties it was something special to have a brilliant photographer coming around to photograph the outlaw and outcast art scene. We didn’t know yet that we were “Beats” or the “San Francisco Renaissance” but Harry Redl’s photographs helped to delineate those movements, and helped us define ourselves. Harry came by my apartment to photograph us — and also to photo Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia — or whoever else was visiting. Harry did studies of our maudite style of living. One time Harry had two free air tickets to Reno and we took the flight together to look at the desert city of black jack and chrome; other times we’d sit up drinking coffee and smoking black Spanish cigarettes. Harry was the image shaper of a scene that stretched from outspoken poets to Assemblage artists. Thanks to Harry we have the black and gray and white shapes of it in all their stark romantic clarity.”