He's a beat icon famed for being a junkie wild man. But a new exhibition shows a new, softer side to William S Burroughs
There are many things that spring to mind when you think of William Burroughs: the lifelong heroin addiction; the love of guns that led to him killing his second wife in a drunken game of William Tell; the wildly chaotic beat lifestyle that informed his literary style. One thing that you probably don't immediately think of is the best way to arrange chrysanthemums.
Yet a new exhibition devoted to the photography of Burroughs reveals several sides to the writer that are rarely included in the wildman mythology. Indeed, Taking Shots (you can probably see what they've done there) explores the idea of Burroughs not just as a photographer in his own right, but as a complex artist with ideas that are often extremely personal. Flowers is a case in point: a series of photographs in which a pink rose protrudes from a chrome Coca-Cola bottle. As the exhibition explains, there are personal reasons for Burroughs' choice of imagery: his mother, Laura Lee, was a renowned flower arranger who wrote a trio of books on the subject for Coca-Cola.
Gysin is famous for inventing, with Burroughs's help, the "cut-up" technique, used in the writer's masterpiece Naked Lunch. Yet Burroughs used this method for things other than writing. Running through these photographs, which span the 1950s to 70s, is a desire to chop and rearrange images – using collage, shadow, wordplay, magnification and reflection – in a quest to generate new meaning. Burroughs likened the effects of cut-up to time travel: by slicing through order and chronology, he was attempting to break the space-time continuum itself.
Indeed, time and loss are consistent themes. Infinity Photographs involves a painstaking process of photographing, then rephotographing, his own library of photos in order to produce a single image that contained the entire collection (an ultimate act of hoarding that seems prescient of the digital age, not to mention at odds with someone who so often lost and discarded his own work).
Perhaps the most moving sequence is What Was, What Isn't, which documents the aftermath of a passionate encounter with his lover John Brady. Ordered chronologically, it begins with a messed-up bed and then a closeup of a stain on the sheets, before moving on towards a fully made-up bed. It's intimate but also sad, exploring how moments of joy are transient and soon to be covered up by something more ordinary. The emptiness of the original image – nobody is present on the messy bed – reminds you that the scene no longer exists and tantalises you with the thought of what might have gone on there. No wonder Burroughs wished he could time travel.
Beyond a small section dedicated to more conventional portraits of Burroughs's friends and collaborators (including an effortlessly cool shot of Jack Kerouac in Tangier around the time On the Road was published), Taking Shots is an exhibition that doesn't dwell on the writer's celebrity pull. For those who crave to have their Burroughs myths reaffirmed, however, there are traces of his punkier side. In true DIY style, his photographs were developed not in expensive studios but at drugstores – something unheard of for a photographer at the time. There's also an amusing sequence called Moka Bar, in which Burroughs plots a "multimedia attack" on London's first ever espresso bar, on Frith Street. Upset with their rude service and a "poisonous cheesecake", he set out to see if he could alter reality with photography: turning up every day for several weeks to document the cafe with photography and audio equipment, in a manner that allegedly drove customers away. The final photograph in the series implies he was victorious: Moka Bar has been replaced by Queens Snack Bar.
It underlines the fact that Burroughs saw photography not just as art but as a powerful and provocative tool. Indeed, 1960s underground chronicler Barry Miles believes he viewed the camera as a weapon – "one as powerful as the .38 he was habitually in possession of". You might think this is a million miles away from flower-arranging, but as Burroughs once said: "The only way I like to see cops given flowers is in a flowerpot from a high window."
• Taking Shot is at the Photographers' Gallery until 30 March. The associated book is published by Prestel (http://www.randomhouse.de/book/Taking-Shots-The-Photography-of-William-Burroughs/Patricia-Allmer/e445617.rhd?mid=1&pub=58500)