Harold Chapman – The Beat Hotel

Some days ago I got great news from east of the Atlantic. Harold Chapman and Claire Parry informed me about an upcoming exhibition with Harold’s photographs. The Proud Chelsea gallery in London will showcase the work during the month of August, starting July 29.

The exhibition called “The Beat Hotel” refers to a very significant part of Chapman ‘s oeuvre. Published by Gris Banal, Editeur, Montpellier – Geneva 1984, with the same title, the book is hard to find today and creates occasionally significant revenue on auctions.

Another publication, titled “Beats A Paris” with an introduction by Barry Miles was realized in 2001 by me, my partners and the OMC Gallery. You ask what these photographs are about?

In 1956 Chapman took up residence in an attic garret of the Parisian hotel and lived there until 1963, when the place was alive with the Beat experimentation and the smoke-filled air crackled with creativity. William S. Burroughs remembered it as the “No-Name” Hotel. Madame Rachou managed the hotel more like a mother than an owner, and filled it with artists and writers. Little by little, the core of Anglo-Saxon culture of the time formed: Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, Norse, Gysin and the South African poet, Sinclair BeilesThe Beat Generation.

This all happened in Paris between 1956 and 1963 at no. 9, rue Git-le-Coeur. At the Hotel Burroughs wrote most of ‘Naked Lunch. Allen Ginsberg wrote the first drafts of his landmark poem, “Kaddish”. Ginsberg also stayed here while the furor over his poem “Howl” raged in America. Gregory Corso, who named the hotel the “Beat Hotel”, wrote two of his best known poems, “Marriage” and “Bomb”. Brion Gysin invented the Dream Machine there, and he and William Burroughs created the “cut up” method there. It was a site of great artistic experimentation.

Well – and this is  how Harold Chapman once described a first visit in the hotel:

So I go in to this crazy café where I was immediately pounced upon by a tiny fierce gray haired little old lady (MADAME RACHOU) who glared at me suspiciously and roared out a stream of incomprehensible French. Handing her a piece of paper, I pointed clearly at the word, at the same time speaking loudly “GREGORY CORSO”.  Holding it out at arm’s length she peered at it shortsightedly and suddenly broke into a beaming radiant smile, and clutching the piece of paper to her breast, she shrieked, “Ah, Le petit Monsieur Corso-0-0!’’ and proceeded to gabble a stream of complicated instructions which went in one ear and out through the other. I noticed that she was sticking her forefinger vigorously up in the air, so I figured that as she was straining very hard to get it up high, he must be on the top floor.

I wandered down this pitch dark corridor nervously feeling the walls. What a strange place this was, no f—ing lights anywhere. Or at least there were light switches but they didn’t work. I came to the bottom of the stairs.  This was the first time I had ever seen real French stairs. I had seen them many times in sordid movies, but they didn’t look anything like that.  These looked like something out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale or maybe even something out of a Frankenstein movie.  Everything was painted a dirty creamy Grey; anyway I could hardly see, it was so dark.  The windows were cracked and dirty, uncleaned for years probably.  The walls were cracked and peeling, and the stairway spiraled almost like a soft Dali landscape in this strange astral light.

So I went up and up and came to the top.  Here it became really complicated… I could see the top floor was not really the top floor, but that above the top floor was an additional construction that they must have squeezed in somehow to make some extra money.  I could see two doors but how to get to them was rather a problem.  Bending double and almost walking on my hands and knees, I walked along a gallery and bending even lower I eased my way under a large dent in the ceiling which had obviously been made by people banging their heads on it for the last 200 years, and by stepping up the steps to the room opposite to the one which I was going to, I was able to step across to the other steps, and arrived with my eye at keyhole level.  Peering through the keyhole I could see that it was blocked up which I figured must have been done on purpose.  Or maybe someone had hung a coat on the door.

Anyway, the place stank of piss, like the whole hotel, for at various levels in the circular wall of this well-like stair shaft were these doors from which this dreadful smell came blowing out.  Mind you there were also strange exotic smells coming through the keyholes of many of the rooms, delicious oriental food smells, smells of frying; in fact, one could even hear the sound of frying, and at the top where I was the smell was the strongest, of hot air.  But the food really smelt nice, just like the smell one gets when one walks down alleyways late at night behind expensive hotels.  Delicious.  Strange, though. Why was everybody cooking?  Why were there so many different smells of cooking?  I would have thought there would have been the distinct smell of French cooking, which I had already smelt in the streets.  But this smelt Chinese, in fact come to think of it, on my way up, I had seen one of the doors covered by those erotic beaded curtains that hang outside oriental brothels always, or at least in Warner Brothers’ Oriental Brothels.  And there was a window, which had a red curtain hung over it, with Chinese writing on it.  In fact come to think of it, all the way up one side of the stairwell, were these sinister barred windows, like cells; some of them had half open windows and some of them had tightly shut windows which appeared to be painted over and blacked out.  What a crazy place; the steps were grey and worn; on the floor were faded, cracked red tiles.

The door number was stenciled on crudely, in black.  The door itself was painted a dim battleship grey, covered with faded pencil scribbles.  I rapped on the door. YEAH, COME ON IN. I opened the door, the room was fantastic. It was just like I had always thought of them, attics for starving poets I mean; it was more so than the movies, more than HENRY MILLER even. The whole room sloped, even the floor; a large brown beam went across the ceiling, hanging from it was a faded chipped plaster angel.  The room was done out in a sort of faded brownish red, even the floor was a faded brownish red; cracked tiles.  The walls were covered with picture postcards of the old masters. A table was made out of a DA VINCI cartoon covered in cracked glass. On it was standing a globe of the world, glowing brightly.  The room was lit by the traditional naked bulb; it looked about 25 watts, though the fly shit on it would cut it down a bit.  Some more light was coming through a skylight, not much. A sort of nave led off what could be described as the main room, I suppose. At the end of it was an ill-fitting rotting window frame; more light came through this, in fact it was a pity that the window panes were dirty…I slipped my meter out of my pocket and took a quick reading. It was a tenth at 1.5. A pity all I had was a CONTAX with a 50mm lens. I could have done with a wide angle, blast it.  There were also bottles standing on the table. Was I alone? Maybe.  He had a white shirt on, sitting BUDDHA like on the iron bed.  I managed to squeeze into a corner and after making the usual jazz about me, you ,why, how, what for and so forth I was able to relax and watch.  Thank God he talked. What about, everything under  the sun.  Wonderful. His hands were waving about like a crazy Frenchman on the movies, blur, lovely. So I shot off about a roll, and asked if I could wander around with him and just shoot off pictures when I felt like it…We left…

For several years the Beat’s central players based themselves at this Parisian dirty gem, while every of their moves was recorded by a quiet photographer or as Rob Sharp from “The Independent” describes it: Harold Chapman – The man, who never missed a Beat.

Since the year 2000 I’ve presented Harold Chapman’s work several times east (Paris, Duesseldorf, Cologne)  and west of the Atlantic (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Huntington Beach), focusing either on “The Beat Hotel” or other magnificent parts of his oeuvre like the “Billboard” series or “Les Halles” , “Vanishing France” and in 2007, when he turned 80 we’ve established a retrospective, presenting iconic images of  60 years of his oeuvre. I’m still fascinated about the subject, the quality of his work, the intimate stories it tells. He himself said once during an interview: “…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.”

And 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) describes Chapman: “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.”


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