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Those who obsess over the past and steep themselves in nostalgia to block out the shallow, mass-marketed mayhem of our modern, trend-chasing world must have had a self-reflective laugh during Woody Allen's latest award-winner, Midnight In Paris, in which the lead character pined for the past, only to be transported there to meet another character who sought escape in a previous—and considered superior—time. The message? Everyone believes that some historical landscape just has to be better than the one in which they currently reside. While Allen's smartypantsness certainly has merit (do you really want to die of tuberculosis at age 40 just so you can hang out with Picasso?), the truth is that some of the tenets and trappings of bygone eras were superior to those that followed, and the loss of them elicits an appropriate wellspring of lament and bitterness over the heartless goosestepping of this thing called "progress."
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The OMC Gallery's new exhibit of photographs by Harold Chapman, "The Beat Hotel," is a picturesque and painful reminder of this loss—most especially to those of us who dabble in the arts—and evidence that the paradoxical colonies of introverted extroverts who shunned fancy media and new technology (because they were scrappy poor or because they didn't buy into capitalist chaos) to focus their art on exploring the human condition are sadly, extinct. This is not to say there weren't egos in residence at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur (nicknamed "the Beat Hotel") in 1956—the year journalist/photographer Chapman moved in and began shooting—for there most certainly were. Ego was perhaps built on the admiration of peers, however, as opposed to some marketing coup that made one's work available to bored 1950s housewives in exchange for a paycheck that would be certainly converted into rye.
Chapman didn't seem to think a whit of this business model when he chucked his job as a waiter in London's Soho to shack up in the squalor of Paris, nor did he know he'd soon be surrounded by likeminded laureates William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, along with other impressive, if now forgotten, writers, singers and visual artists. What he did know is that he wanted to shoot Paris and he could do it better than what he'd already seen done, and thus his journey to document the city, its citizenry, and the expats seeking refuge and inspiration began.
OMC Gallery owner Rolf Goellnitz knows everything there is to know about Chapman, whose photographs he has been collecting for more than 20 years, and getting Goellnitz to pour his information into your empty head isn't only easy, but also essential. One thing he told me was that Chapman, now 85, once said he "takes pictures for the future," that he knows—and knew even back in 1956—that life moves on, that eras end, landscapes change, and that he wanted to leave signposts for subsequent generations who, without visual proof, would never know what had come before. It's as if he were set on doing his part to complete the human record in some small way, and if you've never heard a modern artist say something like that, you're not alone.
The photographs, regardless of Chapman's goal to merely document, are astounding, both in subject matter and composition, with the imagery ranging from moody portraiture of the famous and their dingy, single-bed rooms to street scenes featuring disparate juxtapositions of people and background advertisements. There is the image of a nun standing in front of a wall advert of a girl in a miniskirt, mid-framed so that all we see are the nun and the legs behind her. And there is the meeting of four businessmen in overcoats conversing, by happenstance, in front of a brassiere advert, the headless woman snapping her straps while the men somberly wait for their fifth member to arrive. These images are all the more impressive when we realize Chapman would stake out an advert for hours waiting for just the right person to pass by, his camera slung low on his chest to avoid distraction.
Likewise, his portraiture and candids of fellow artists are striking, with attention paid to the taboo relationships only Paris embraced, such as the black-and-white coupling of writer Vertamae Smart and sculptor Bob Grosvenor and the partnering of Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, better known to their friends as "Mr. and Mrs. Ginsberg." The atmospheric interior shots of the hotel (and other dwellings on the Left Bank), mostly lit by a single bulb and usually featuring a guitar hung on the wall, speak most directly to Chapman's historian angle and are what dreamy-eyed yearners for yesteryear should pay the most attention to when it comes to progress pains: The Beat Hotel was a dump. There were no modern conveniences, no TVs, no in-room phones. It was not a warm, comfy, pleasure palace of luxury, and it probably had rats. Then again, without the bother of keeping up with the Joneses or the worry over presenting a mainstream or hipster façade, these artists created some of the most important work in literary and visual history—work that we still revere and attempt to emulate today. Pining for the past may be futile, but striving to resurrect it may not. Here's hoping the beat does, in fact, go on.
This review appeared in print as "Will the Beat Go On? OMC Gallery's Parisian bohemian retrospective evokes a yearning for yesteryear."
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