Icon & Image – Charles Gatewood’s Photographic Techniques for Myth-Making

“William Burroughs, Paris, 1959. Burroughs is wearing what he called his “Rothschild suit”. One of a number of images taken of Burroughs by Brion Gysin in the streets of Paris. Gysin told writer Terry Wilson that the series was an ironic magical operation intended to procure Burroughs’ entry into the French Academy. ”

– from Naked Lunch at 50 – text by Oliver Harris 

To create an icon you need an image. To create an effective image you need a really good photographer.

William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin are two of the 20th century’s most profound exponents of the more esoteric angles of artistic creation. Open experimenters in the techniques of myth making and magic, they knew how to capitalize on a well crafted photo.

Everybody can pick up a camera and click, but it takes special skill to sanctify your subject. Despite so many good intentions, art is never a democratic domain. The artist has something that others don’t, and that’s the ability to turn the mundane into the magical.  The photographer Charles Gatewood is one of the folks that happens to have that skill.

Gatewood captured Burrough and Gysin at play in the world of consciousness studies, exploring inner space with Gysin’s Dream Machine, measuring emotional response with E-Meters, staring fixed into the aether with hypnotic purpose. These images, commissioned by Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, have become central to the mythopoetic magic surrounding their psychonautical explorations during the 1970’s, and prove the power of the image to define the icon that lies buried in the everyday.

“Charles Gatewood the sidetripping photographer takes what the walker didn’t quite see, something or somebody he may have looked quickly away from and the photo reminds him of something deja vu back in front of his eyes.  “from W.S. Burroughs’ introduction to Sidetripping, a collection of Charles Gatewood’s photography.

Gatewood helped them storm the citadels of enlightenment by solidifying their experiments, and doing so in a way that opened up the numinous possibilities inherent in their work.  As an artistic adept, he helped create the myth, inserting these fringe forms into mainstream publication, to be remixed, and repeated in perpetua throughout the cultural consciousness.

” The Old Lizard King might be off hard drugs and living in a tidy London flat, but he was still a pervy old con. The truth well told.” from William S. Burroughs, Charles Gatewood & Sidetripping, essay by Charles Gatewood

As Burroughs points out in his introduction to Sidetripping, Gatewood moves from the outside in. Today we can look at his photography as an artistic expression, but when he started out Gatewood’s subject matter wasn’t the subject of polite conversation. He has consistently pioneered the documentation of the outer realms of culture, and in doing so has raised his subjects up from the underground and opened the culture to radical new ways of viewing freedom.

“I want to make photographs that kill,” – Charles Gatewood

Like a character from one of Burroughs’ novels, Gatewood uses his camera to blow open the gates of personal expression. Creating a dignified place for radical visions. With photographic phenomenology he turns underground culture into an angelic realm, shows the wastelands of Wall Street, and captured the scientific genius of two of the last centuries least understood poets of possibility.

Time makes saints of sinners, a process greatly aided by an able photographer. To fully understand the creative power inherent in the image read, in Gatewood’s own words, his recollection of the photo session in an essay on the Reality Studio website .

The photographs that came out of this meeting show none of the tension and awkwardness that Gatewood recalls, he was able to capture the iconic figures that were forming through Burroughs and Gysin’s work and isolate them on film. Translating the word into image, teasing out the powerful characters that they presented through their artistic personas. Understanding this interplay of physical reality and mythological personification is one of the keys to the creative process.

As Burroughs explains in an interview with Simone Lazerri Ellis: “The observer creates by observing, and the observer observes by creating. In other words, observation is a creative act. By observing something and putting it onto canvas, the artist makes something visible to others that did not exist until he observed it.”

If you’re in the San Francisco area Gatewood will be giving a presentation at the Robert Tat Gallery on October 15, 2011 from 2 to 5 PM as part of a retrospective on his work which opens September 8, 2011 and runs through November 28, 2011.

And if you have $1500 to invest in a handcrafted talisman, you can pick up a copy of Burroughs 23, a limited edition (23 copies) deluxe artist’s book featuring his photos and collages of Burroughs and Gysin.

“If you want to disappear… come around for private lessons.” – Brion Gysin from Minutes to Go, Sinclair Beiles, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin. Beach Books, Texts & Documents, 1968.

Note: Thanks to Rebecca G. Wilson for drawing my attention to Charles’ publication of Burroughs 23

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