During the 1950s and 60s the photographer Harold Chapman, who has died aged 95, chronicled the denizens of the “Beat hotel” in Paris. After a chance encounter with the photographer John Deakin in Soho, London, in the mid-50s, where he had been documenting jazz, Chapman moved to Paris in 1956 and lived at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, the hotel in the city’s Latin quarter that became known as a favorite destination for Beat writers including William S Burroughs and Gregory Corso.
As well as Burroughs, his neighbors included the American writer Harold Norse, and the poet and painter Kay “Kaja” Johnson. During his sojourn at the Left Bank hotel – he was the last guest to leave when the establishment closed its doors in 1963 – Chapman documented street life in Paris, including the food markets of Les Halles, photographs of which were published in the book Vanishing France (1975, with John L. Hess).
During the 60s, Chapman traveled back and forth between Paris and London, where he worked as a freelance photographer for Fleet Street newspapers, recording the burgeoning “swinging city”, as Time magazine described London in 1966. Chapman’s skill at documenting soon-to- be-vanishing milieux, underscored by works such as The Complete Guide to London’s Antique Street Markets (1974), was accompanied by an ability to capture his subjects without staging shots.
The poet Allen Ginsberg described him as an “invisible” photographer. The novelist Ian McEwan, who met Chapman in 1974, wrote in the Guardian in 2000 that he “took pictures like taking breath. In the street, he shot people coming out of doorways, or stepping out of taxis, or greeting each other outside shops.”
There is “no need for the contrived shot”, Chapman explained in an interview in 1968. “So why set up a photograph when the natural one is infinitely better? … All I aim for is to record the trivial things that ordinary people use and consider unimportant.”
Notwithstanding his drive to capture the ordinary and the trivial, his favorite – and most famous – shot was a picture of Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky sitting back-to-back on a double-sided bench in St-Germain-des-Prés, taken around 1957, an image that was recreated in the film Howl (2010), starring James Franco as Ginsberg.
More than 200 of Chapman’s photographs were published in The Beat Hotel (1984). In the foreword to the book, Burroughs, who completed his novel The Naked Lunch at the hotel, recalled: “It was a magical interlude, and like all such interludes, all too brief.” Alan Govenar’s documentary, also called The Beat Hotel (2012), focuses on Chapman’s recollections of his time at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, along with those of the Scottish artist Elliot Rudie. Chapman described the hotel as “always fun… always dada… always surreal”, during a period in which, thanks to the low cost of living, he was able to pick and choose his creative projects.
A number of Chapman’s photographs, many taken on an ancient Contax camera, were included in the exhibition Beat Generation at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 2016. The title of another exhibition, Not Only the Beat Hotel, at Linden Hall Studio in his native Deal, Kent, the following year, was a reminder that Chapman’s work extended beyond the coteries and street life of the Left Bank. His extensive portfolio of him included stunning pictures of megaliths in the Languedoc, images for French guidebooks and photographs for cookery books, and he also documented the remains of second world war defenses in Deal during the early 1990s.
Chapman’s career as a jobbing photographer seemed unlikely during his youth. As he told the Guardian in 2010: “I’ve had no education whatsoever – I successfully ran away from every school I ever went to. I studied photography just by doing it.” The suicide of his father, Harold, a carpenter and builder, who had introduced him to photography, had a profound effect on the nine-year-old Chapman. His mother, Ilse (nee Becker, known as Elsie), who was half Danish and half German, sent her son off to a school in German-speaking Switzerland, which he described as a “correctional institution”. Returning to Britain in 1939, Chapman witnessed a bomb descending during the war. He recalled: “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.”
These early experiences informed Chapman’s outlook, and his craft. He told the gallery director Myles Corley in 2017: “You can do what you like if you step out of being too influenced by society and all the rules … I never understood any of them all my life.”
After a life of extensive travel, including national service with the army in Uganda, and then France, where he continued to live on and off from the 50s to the early 90s, Chapman returned to his father’s cottage in Deal in 1993 with his third wife , Claire, whom he met in the south of France in 1980 and married in 1990. In 2021, suffering from dementia, he moved to a nursing home near Folkestone.
He is survived by Claire (nee Parry), two children, Sue and Richard, from his first marriage, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism