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When the Beats moved to Paris

August 8, 2009 | 10:02 am

In 1956, as the obscenity trial of "Howl" was underway, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso decamped to Paris. American and British artists and associates joined them there, at a cheap, dirty hotel at 9 Route Gît-Le-Coeur in the city's Latin Quarter. The hotel already had a clientele of oddballs and prostitutes, pimps and police, but it became known among a certain set as the Beat Hotel.

That's also the name of a coming documentary by Alan Govenar and Alan Hatchett. Its main window into that time is Englishman Harold Chapman, who left a job waiting tables and hitchhiked to Paris to photograph it. He wound up meeting Ginsberg and Corso, moving into the hotel and, some said, trying to become invisible so he could photograph the people who passed through. But he's not invisible; he's interviewed extensively in the film, and his photographs constitute much of its visual content.

In the trailer, he says Ginsberg had "quite a different style." He continues:

That's one of the things I learned from Allen. That you don't have to worry about the conventions of  composition in photography, or anything, you just invent your own, and so forth. Just do whatever you like.

Chapman's pictures appear in the photo book "The Beat Hotel," published in France in 1984. Copies are available from AbeBooks for $100 to $300. A cheaper version of the story -- if a longer, less pretty read -- is Barry Miles' 2001 history "The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963."

And then there's the coming documentary, which will have the pictures, older men looking back on the period, and, if the trailer is any indication, a really snazzy beat-jazz score.

-- Carolyn Kellogg