Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
One of the most moving images of William Burroughs that I know of appeared in a 1964 issue of Esquire. You might never have seen it. RealityStudio posted it in an essay on Burroughs and Esquire years ago and it was one of the few times we were asked to pull an image or text because of copyright. You will have to dig around the Internet or buy a used copy of Esquire to see it. It is worth the effort. The color image is striking and features Burroughs lounging with his son, Billy, in Burroughs’ apartment in Tangier. Something obscene and evil hovers around Billy, lurking in the shadows which threaten to engulf him. There is a dark backstory to this photograph involving dirty old men and Billy’s introduction to a future of drug and alcohol abuse. Billy looking back on the photograph years later felt rather more of a shudder than warm, fuzzy feelings, and for me too, the photograph of father and son inspires strong, heartfelt emotions.
As Burroughs grew older, there was an impulse to humanize him. To make him a good father, a good husband, in short, a good guy. I have no illusions about that. He is merely a great writer to me. I do not need my writers to be role models. And make no mistake Burroughs was not a role model. It could be argued that the Godfather of Punk led more people down the path of destruction than he inspired to creative self-realization. You will get no argument from me, but this picture of Burroughs and Billy really touches me. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that it haunts me.
I have only one image of my father on display in my house. It is a photograph of the two of us standing side by side on a summer’s day in New Harbor, Block Island. It was a moment of parting, the documenting of a send-off homeward via ferry after a week-long visit around the time I was in college. Generally I cannot bear to have pictures of my father around as I find them too painful to contemplate. The photo above is heartbreaking. Goodbyes always are.
My favorite photo involving my father features my father, brother, and I standing on the porch of a house that overlooked Old Harbor, Block Island as we were about to go play basketball on another summer’s day several years earlier. For years I had that photograph resting on one of my bookshelves but I allowed my books to swallow it up and the picture is now lost within the pages of some biography or history on that shelf. Those books serve as an interface for me to interact with my own history and biography but like all ports of entry they have a distancing effect. They act as a filter for something I consider too personal and close to really get in touch with. That is the dark, and, for many, pathetic side to collecting. A collection can deaden intimate feelings.
And it is intimacy that draws me to that photograph of Burroughs. A closeness. I am aware that I am reading this into the photograph because distance and unease are just as prominent. That said I find it comforting. I am also painfully aware that there is more intimacy and closeness on display in the two photographs I have of my father. And in my relationship with my father. Instead of finding solace in this, I find it uncomfortable. There is a painting by my grandmother, my father’s mother, depicting that same porch of that same house above Old Harbor in the now-lost photograph. In the painting my father, brother, and I do not appear. It is like we faded away. My father did not fade or flicker. He was gone in a flash. In the decade since his death, I can still visualize my father but I can no longer remember what his voice sounded like. Or his laugh. I also have difficulty remembering all those countless moments of closeness and intimacy. The times my father demonstrated his love for me. The times captured by those two photographs. The times I took for granted and thought would last forever like a clear day in June on Block Island. Nothing — not even photographs or book collections — lasts forever. Recollections recede like sunlight off a porch overlooking a harbor in a shifting tide, which makes it all the more important to appreciate and experience to the fullest every fleeting moment as it happens. There are some things you cannot collect.
Read further installments in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs