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Remembering Harold Chapman Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

10 September 2022

Harold Chapman, who photographed the inhabitants of the "Beat hotel" in Paris during the 1950s and 1960s, died last month in Folkestone, England. He was 95.

Chapman got his start in photography at the age of seven when he began shooting, developing and printing his own photos. His father, a carpenter, taught him the ropes.

But when he was nine years old, his father committed suicide. His mother, who was half Danish and half German, sent him to boarding school in German-speaking Switzerland.

"I've had no education whatsoever," he would later say. "I successfully ran away from every school I ever went to. I studied photography just by doing it."

He returned to Britain in 1939, just in time to see the country bombed by Germany. After one close call, he said, "I suddenly realized I was dead and time and everything seemed to be frozen in a total silence. I reasoned that as I was now dead, I could do anything."

He met John Deakin in Soho in 1954 who influenced his style. Two years later Chapman moved to Paris and put that influence to work at a 13th class hotel on the Left Bank, affectionately known as the Beat Hotel.

'Pictures are everywhere.'

Madame Rachou, who owned the hotel, protected her resident artists, often accepting their work for rent.

During his own seven-year residency there (during which he paid four francs a night for a room), Chapman encountered and photographed William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin and others there. Meanwhile, he documented Paris street life.

But it was a Paris that was about to vanish, like the food market of Les Halles. Some of that work was published in 1963 in Vanishing France. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote of the book:

John L. Hess' text and Harold Chapman's photographs not only make up a book both moving and poetic; they will also prove immensely valuable to future scholars when the France which they describe will have completely disappeared and given place to a new, albeit different one.

Chapman also worked on a color cook book for Flammarion, a prestigious Parisian publishing house, which he followed with another cook book, a book about cheese and contributions to a book on wine.

At the same time, he would return to England where he freelanced for Fleet Street newspapers documenting the colorful but disappearing London of the 1960s. He became well-known for capturing the subject without staging the shot.

"There is no need for the contrived shot," he said. "Pictures are everywhere. So why set up a photograph when the natural one is infinitely better?"

He photographed street fashion with his Contax camera on King's Road for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the lates 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s and eaerly 1980s, he working in Britain doing photo research and producing several books.

In France he travelled throughout the country in a Deux Chevaux van photographing monuments, buildings and landscapes, contributing to the Librairie Larousse series of books and magazines Beautés de la France. He also covered fashion for the New York Times in Paris and contributed to Medical World News and Medical Tribune.

By the end of the century, interest in his Beat Hotel photographs grew after an exhibition in his hometown of Deal that traveled internationally.

In describing his work, he said, "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."

He is survived by his third wife Claire, two children from his first marriage, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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