This is one of a group of photomontages (or photo-collages as they have historically been titled) in Tate’s collection by William Burroughs, that derive from two visits he made to Tangier in 1963 and 1964, and a visit to New York in April 1965 (see Tate P82492–509). One of the key avant-garde writers and novelists of the American beat generation, alongside Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs’s adoption and exploration of the ‘cut-up’ method in his writing after 1959 also found expression in terms of sound and visual art, manifested through photography, collage and audiotape experiments. Burroughs pursued this aspect of his work during the period between 1960 and 1974 when he was based in London. The photo-collages in Tate’s collection are all the result of a similar process, whereby a group of photographs were arranged by Burroughs on a tabletop and then photographed in sequences, as either the framing of the photograph was changed or the arrangements were subtly altered. Some of the photographs, notably the four entitled Untitled (PhotoCollage with Shadows, Hotel Chelsea, New York) 1965 (Tate P82504–7), utilise cast shadows as a key part of the composition. Other photomontages also include arrangements of scrapbook pages alongside photographs – indeed the same scrapbook page appears in different states in two of the Tangier photographs from 1964 (Tate P82501 and P82502) and in two of the New York photographs from the following year (Tate P82506 and P82507; the final states of these two scrapbook pages are in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library). Another photo-collage from the Hotel Chelsea in New York of 1965 shows a different scrapbook page amongst news photographs and collage material (Tate P82509; this pictured scrapbook page is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
One sequence of eight tabletop montages from Tangier shows a characteristic arrangement that in the course of the photographic sequence gets slightly altered with additional photographs (Tate P82493–500). Images of Tangier, Gibraltar and Mexico, as well as of Burroughs and his friends, are laid over a map of Tangier (this map appears on the floor beneath the table in the two Tangier scrapbook montages, Tate P82501 and P82502); additionally, on the right side of some of the photographs, a compass has been laid down. Where the tabletop montages concentrate mainly on place, the other two scrapbook montages are more clearly emotional mappings of friendships.
The group of six montages from New York date from a short period when Burroughs stayed at the Chelsea Hotel and, in the main, show montaged arrangements of scrapbook pages with additional loose photographs overlaid and additionally folded in by the play of shadows (Tate P82504–9). Burroughs stayed in America between December 1964 and August 1965, during which time he worked with the British artist, writer and poet Brion Gysin on a book outlining the cut-up method, incorporating his photographs and scrapbook pages (not published until 1978 as The Third Mind).
Not long after the publication of his controversial novel Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs evolved an approach to writing, akin to collage, that was termed ‘cut-up’. This approach to text stimulated narrative flow in new directions and had been discovered first by his friend Brion Gysin. For Burroughs, the books that resulted from the cut-up process – predominantly Minutes to Go and The Exterminator (both 1960); The Soft Machine (1961); The Ticket that Exploded (1962); Nova Express (1964) – were expressions of how text as a system of control could be dislocated and fragmented through a dismantling of linear sequential narrative that challenged the authorial voice. The use of photography and creation of scrapbook collages came to assume a special place within his adoption of the cut-up process, and this practice also signals a direct intersection with the London countercultural scene he inhabited at the time. Between 1960 and 1974 Burroughs based himself in London and the city provided the context for his developing literary and visual vocabulary. Many of his cut-up experiments were first published in British magazines, most notably Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag (1963–6; for instance one of the Untitled [PhotoCollage, Hotel Chelsea, New York] 1965 works appears in My Own Mag, no.13, August 1965, on p.5 of ‘Dead Star’). Additionally, the multimedia presentations Burroughs made with Gysin at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1963 provide one example of the congruence of his positioning within the worlds of literature, art and performance that shows close correspondence with British-based artists such as John Latham, Mark Boyle or Gustav Metzger and their preoccupation with event over object.
It was only after his move to London that Burroughs started making the photographic cut-ups – with his boyfriend, the mathematician Ian Sommerville – taking photographs of collages to then make collages of those photographs, which would then be photographed and the process endlessly repeated. The resulting cut-up ‘infinity’ collages were never fixed down but perpetually rearranged, and so only ever existed as photographs. By 1963 Burroughs had evolved his use of photomontage consisting of photographs arranged on a tabletop, where image juxtaposition sparked emotional relationships (between people such as his parents, boyfriends and cultural figures, as well as intersections between different places and times). The development of these montages he carried forward hand in hand with scrapbook pages that also employed text to which ephemeral photographic relationships might be added and then photographed. The montages represent some of Burroughs’ early attempts to use visual images in the way he was using words – to transcend time and space, and link together various aspects of his life and world, in ways that correlate to a ‘mindscape’. Such a procedure was akin to the connections found in the cut-up text sequences of his contemporaneous writing concerned with ‘interzone’ – an imaginary city, a combination of New York, Mexico City and Tangier that provided the basis and stage for his interwoven narratives.
The photographs in Tate’s collection are all vintage prints from 1963, 1964 and 1965. Burroughs’s practice was to have his photographs developed and printed at local chemists wherever he was at the time (Tate’s archive collection includes a photo wallet from a Tangier chemist). The photographs were never editioned.
Ports of Entry: William S Burroughs and the Arts, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles1996.
Cut-Ups, Cut-Ins, Cut-Outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs, exhibition catalogue Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna 2012.
Taking Shots, The Photography of William S. Burroughs, exhibition catalogue, Photographers’ Gallery, London 2014.
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