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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Loomis Dean, William Burroughs on a bed in the Beat Hotel, 1959

An installment in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs

William Burroughs shooting heroinIn the age of Instagram and Snapchat, are you a famous junkie if there are no images of you shooting junk? Burroughs was the 20th Century’s poster boy for junk but where are the images you would put on that poster? I know of only two images of Burroughs actually shooting up; both seemingly taken at the same time during the Paris years. There are millions and millions of images of him drinking and smoking cigarettes yet there are not as many images of Burroughs doing drugs as you might expect.  

William Burroughs shooting heroinTrue, like writing, shooting heroin is a solitary (and criminal) act to be practiced alone, but this is also a sign of respect. Even at the Bunker, one of Burroughs’ druggiest periods and a time when fans and celebrities appeared at his door with cameras and drugs, there was a respect for privacy. There was a separation of public and private spheres — something that’s now eroding in a world of nearly constant surveillance, much of it self-imposed by selfies and videos, and the rise of celebrity culture where anyone can be a star and can serve as their own paparazzi. Arguably it was this same respect in the form of being honored with the first shot which enabled Burroughs to survive as a needle addict through the early AIDS epidemic in New York City.  

One wonders if this level of respect would have been maintained had Burroughs not died just as the Internet was exploding. The ghoulish photograph at Burroughs’ casket in Lawrence and the actions of John Giorno on Burroughs’ passing suggest possibly not.

All that said, Burroughs was posterized as a junkie from the very beginnings of his interaction with the media. In 1959 Loomis Dean of Life magazine provided the general public with the first impression of William Burroughs. What they saw was the image of a drug addict. True, Dean and reporter David Snell were more respectful of Burroughs than the other Beats but the shot of Burroughs smoking alone in his room at the Beat Hotel outed Burroughs to the world by implication. In sending his story back to Life, Snell notes: “Fortunately or unfortunately, however, we do not see [Burroughs] smoking marijuana in any of the Dean pictures. He was fresh out. All the smoke you see curling around his nostrils is tobacco.”  

Life encouraged readers to see Burroughs smoking marijuana even if he was not, just as the image of Burroughs on the bed served as a stand-in for Burroughs shooting heroin. Dean and Loomis had read Naked Lunch closely. On meeting Burroughs they quoted the Hauser and O’Brien scene. Instead of portraying the addict in action, Dean captured the stasis of his daily life. This was the addict waiting for his connection as well as the poster for terminal addiction. “I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. If a friend came to visit — and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit — I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision — a grey screen always blanker and fainter — and not caring when he walked out of it.”  

From 1959 onwards, Burroughs was “The Wickedest Man Alive.” He wrote to his horrified mother after the article appeared, “And remember the others who have held the title before.. Byron Baudelaire Poe people are very glad to claim kinship now.. But really any one in the public eye that is anyone who enjoys any measure of success in his field is open to sensational publicity.” In terms of images of drug-taking, the photograph of Burroughs in his bedroom would prove to be one of the most sensational ever taken. Such is the power of suggestion.

Read further installments in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on DDD MMM 2019.

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