Inaugural EXHIBITION of OMC Gallery for Contemporary Art in Duesseldorf
Harold Chapman - The Beat Hotel A Paris
September 29, 2000 - November 12, 2000 at OMC Gallery for Contemporary Art, Duesseldorf
Born in 1927 in Deal, a seaside town in Kent, Chapman automatically gravitated toward that town's artistic milieu. He originally wanted to be a painter, but in his words, he "was no good at it," and so he began taking photographs instead: "I was astounded by all the strange things and people I used to see about me." His work confounded the local people who could not understand why he wanted to take photographs of a brick wall. He moved to London where he immediately found work as a wedding photographer and in SOHO he fell in with John Deacon who become something of a mentor to him. Deacon's advice, on seeing Chapman's photographs was to "carry on like that. Take pictures of the hardness of an ashtray and a guy digging his chick."
This is Chapman's style: the gritty snapshot-like technique of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Brassaļ. Chapman saw a show at the Archer Gallery called "John Deacon's Paris" and determined to make his own documentary. He was also inspired in this direction by the now-classic 1954 book: "Love On The Left Bank" by Dutch photographer Ed Van der Elsken, showing life among young bohemians in Paris, which expanded documentary form by appearing spontaneous and not posed.
At George Whitman's English-language Mistral Bookshop (today Shakespeare &Co.) he encountered Patrick Shelley. When he explained what he was doing, Shelley insisted that he meet "Mr and Mrs Ginsberg at this fantastic hotel." He took him to the Beat Hotel, at 9 rue Git le Coeur and introduced him to Allen Ginsberg and his boyfriend Peter Orlovsky. Chapman's famous pictures of Ginsberg and Orlovsky are from this first visit to the hotel in December 1957.
"I found that in Paris, in the Beat Hotel, I was now free to be able to get on with my creative ideas." Freed from the repressive hypocrisy of England, and living in a comfortable bohemia, he could do anything he wanted. He got to know William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso, all of whom lived in the hotel: "What I wanted to do with the hotel was document different people I knew there, the everyday life of the hotel."
The Beats lived at night whereas he rose early to watch Paris wake up. "I was inspired again by John Deacon who said 'Get up at five in the morning and go to the market,' so I did. They got quite cross and threw vegetables at me." He persisted and took pictures of the market in the rain, in the freezing cold, the market being cleaned up in the morning: "They got used to me." The market is long gone, but the human dramas played out there each day live on in Chapman's photographs.
"I was interested in the banal ordinary everyday life, the markets, the streets, the shops, the cafes. I became obsessed with the Billboards, I saw this as a sort of art gallery. So I'd wander along the streets, looking at all the different fonts, the graffiti, the way the posters got torn, either deliberately or by the weather, which created all sorts of collages and juxtapositions. I was very interested in Andre Breton's chance. I saw that chance plays the most important role in life, for me. So the way I looked at it everything was chance. You just had to wait and watch and whatever you could imagine you would see or find." He would wait for half an hour, hoping to capture a nun walking past a high fashion ad, or for a businessman to pause and light a cigarette in front of a huge poster of a brassiere.
It is this interrogation of his surroundings that characterizes Chapman's work; his knowledge of the possibilities of a scene and his sympathy for his subjects. Walker Evans wrote: "The secret of photography is that the camera takes on the character and the personality of its handler." Nowhere is this truer than with Harold Chapman's pictures.
"If Chapman were merely a chronicler in a great documentary tradition, his achievement would be impressive enough. His lustrous landscapes of the Herault valley in the Languedoc, his priceless record of the Beat Hotel, his omnivorous, year-on-year transcription of daily life and its little undercurrents, would ensure his reputation as a photographer of the first rank. But it was constructive paranoia that made him an artist." Booker Prize winning British novelist, Ian McEwan, in an article about
Harold Chapman entitled A spy in the name of art, which was published in the Saturday Review of the Guardian. (April 2000)
Harold Chapman is still always working as a Photographer, taking photos and living up to his credo manifested in a pointed statement during in interview in December 1968:
: "...there is no need for the contrived shot. Pictures are everywhere. So why set up a photograph when the natural one is infinitely better?" He added: "I am photographing for the future, not for the present... All I aim for is to record the trivial things that ordinary people use and consider unimportant."