Harry Redl : Portraits of the Beat Generation
San Francisco Rennaisance 1958

Harry Redl self-portrait
Harry Redl self-portrait



The Prescient Photojournalist
by Chris Nuttal-Smith

For someone whose photographs are featured in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington and the Whitney Museum's travelling Beat Culture exhibition, and currently at Vancouver's Exposure Gallery, Harry Redl is awfully reluctant to admit he's an artist. "I find it difficult to produce what is called art photographs, because I don't know if there is such a thing, if there is a difference between a good photograph and an art photograph," he explains.

He lifts a black-and-white print off the living room wall of his North Vancouver home, holding it away from the glare of overhead lights. He is silent, but a barely masked grin seems to await my approval. The photo shows a silhouetted Russian soldier standing atop a T-54 tank. A glint of sunlight off his rifle bayonet draws my eye from the desperate faces of the hundreds of Czech youths standing around the tank that day in Wenceslas Square, Prague.

"This may well be art, but it happens to be a true picture or what happened the day after the Russians moved into Czechoslovakia," he confirms. "So I let people decide what is art."

Later, Redl takes a shirt box from a shelf in his cluttered basement office. Inside are a letter of introduction from the Black Star photo agency; press passes for the New York Times, Time-Life, Stern Magazine, Business Week, Paris-Match, Sports Illustrated, and the Saturday Evening Post; a 1967 White House press-corps pass; and a November 1966 "Peking" luggage tag from when Redl posed as a Canadian tourist to become the first western photographer to document China's Cultural Revolution.

Harry Redl is a photojournalist.

He has no press pass from when he photographed the San Francisco art scene and the Beat Generation in the 1950s. But he has the images. Shirtless Allen Ginsberg, his naked lover Robert LaVigne, and a beautiful woman drinking wine in a leafless tree. Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of a display of banned books. Neal Cassady, hero of On the Road, during a stretch in San Quentin prison. Anais Nin. Henry Miller. Ansel Adams. Not what you would expect from a former German sailor.

After a Second World War stint in the German navy was ended by his American captors, Austrian born Redl moved to Vancouver, photographing weddings and doing portraits whenever he wasn't waiting tables at the Ferguson Point Teahouse in Stanley Park.

Uninspired by Vancouver's nascent arts scene and favouring a growing interest in photography, Redl traveled to Mexico, reading books by Henry Miller along the way. "On the way back the bus stopped in the middle of San Francisco ... and I could feel this tremendous difference in vibrations." The city's life and spontaneity fascinated Redl. After another season in Vancouver, Redl went south again, this time moving to San Francisco's North Beach, where he was literally surrounded by artists. He began introducing himself to local sculptors, writers, painters, photographers, and intellectuals, photographing them with his Rolleiflex camera. And after each shoot he would ask for a list of local people whom his subject found interesting. "And whenever a certain name was mentioned by two different sources, I'd go to them and I'd photograph them-it was an ever-widening web of people."

Although Redl's subjects would often exchange a book or a painting for a photograph, he wasn't making much money. For his first show, Redl hung his portraits along the stairway at the City Lights bookstore, each with a price neatly inscribed on the back: $15. "Nobody even bothered to steal any," he complains. It was 1959. But Redl's photographs were gaining attention. He was soon doing assignments for Time and Life and Sports Illustrated, and he had a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1960. Then Redl's split with his first wife, combined with a desire for adventure, led him to Hong Kong.

"If somebody had given me a history book and said 'Pick any six years,' those were the six years," he admits. Redl got to Asia just as Life magazine's staff photographer left for a three-month vacation, and as American military advisers got to Saigon. From 1962 to 1964, Redl photographed Saigon and the Vietnamese country-side

Redl's second marriage, to Violet, and three brushes with death convinced him to get out of Vietnam. He continued freelancing out of Hong Kong, now with China the focus of his attention. "I made a habit of going to the China Travel Service whenever I was in Hong Kong, and I would say, 'So, any chances for a trip to China?' To my amazement, one day in 1966 1 walked in and they said there was a space on a bus trip from Hong Kong to Canton," he says.

After a few uneventful trips across the border, Redl returned to China in December of 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was gaining momentum. "The moment I crossed the border, I could see it was an extraordinary situation, everything was in turmoil ... every housefront was painted red to the first floor. Red armbands, red books..." In the next two weeks, Redl returned to China twice more.

He photographed columns of marching teenagers in red armbands. Elementary-school children studying Mao's red book. Toothless peasants carrying posters of Mao. "I had everyone on my back. Newspapers and magazines were calling me from -New York and Paris. CBS and NBC were so greedy they even ran my stills on the air," he says. But Redl and his photographs hardly pleased the Chinese government. He left Asia for Vienna in 1967, and was one of two western photojournalists to get past the Czech border in time to shoot the Russian invasion of Prague. And he photographed Albania at a time when it was nearly impossible to get into the tiny Communist satellite.

Based in Phoenix after 1973, Redl continued covering news stories around the globe, shooting annual reports for companies like Du Pont and Exxon, and making portraits of international notables like Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, and Billy Graham.

But it was only after retirement that Redl began to rediscover the work he'd done some 30 years earlier. Harry and Violet moved to Vancouver in 1988, setting up an office in the basement of their small North Vancouver home. Characteristically, Redl found the box of dog-eared pictures he'd hung in the City Lights bookstore and the San Francisco museum just at the right time: interest in Beat culture was beginning to resurge. They were still marked $15.

New York University snapped up Redl's portraits for a 1994 conference on the Beat Generation. Within weeks, museums, collectors, stock agencies, and charity foundations were calling Redl about the photos. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti started sending him books.

The NYU exhibition was followed last December by a Beat Generation show at New York's Whitney Museum, set to travel through the United States and wind up in San Francisco this fall. The Whitney show led to an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery last April. And on the strength of this cross-border attention, Redl opened a show at Vancouver's Exposure Gallery on July 5. Called Beats & Other Artists of the '50s, the show runs until August 4.

Once more, it seems, Redl and his photographs were in the right place at the right time.

But there is one question that has hounded me since I met Harry Redl. If he's always in the right place at the right time, what is he doing in Vancouver?

"The West Coast is sitting on major earthquake fault lines, sooner or later it's gonna go," he answers.

Will he be out there with his camera?

"No, I'll be under a table screaming."

Not bloody likely.

Portrait Index
Artist's Statement

Georgia Straight
Simon Fraser News
Vancouver Province
Vancouver Sun

Harry Redl
Memoir by Brian Nation

Contact Brian Nation
(the author of this site).
Please do NOT contact me about prints or permission regarding use of photos.