Legendary photographer Harold Chapman talks about the Beat Hotel, Blues, Jazz, Paris, and Beat Generation

"I always remember the first few words William Burroughs spoke to me, at our first meeting… Photography is like Zen Buddhism… why don’t you turn on."


The "Invisible" Photographer

Harold Chapman born in Deal in 1927, Harold Chapman nurtured his photographic career with national newspapers and magazines, before a chance meeting with Vogue photographer John Deakin uprooted him to Paris in the mid 1950s. Determined to chronicle the heady spirit of Left Bank Paris, Chapman moved into the now notoriously nicknamed 'Beat Hotel', a refuge for the Beats and like-minded creative people from around the world seeking out the freedom promised by the Latin Quarter.

The 13th class hotel was owned by Madame Rachou - a mother figure who presided over the artistic goings-on from behind her infamous bar. It was home to a plethora of writers, poets and artists until it closed its doors in 1963 - among them William S. Burroughs, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, who had fled obscenity trials in the United States following the publication of his poem Howl.
Within the walls of 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur, the Beats produced some of their greatest work: Burroughs finished his controversial book Naked Lunch, Ian Somerville and Brion Gysin invented the Dream Machine, and Corso wrote several of his most famous poems. It was also a place where Chapman thrived. Although, on vacating the hotel, he worked for the New York Times and is widely recognised for his iconic images of psychedelic Swinging London, it is for his photographs of Paris and the Beat Hotel that he is best known. Despite his often quirky, humorous images, he was ultimately motivated by a more serious documentary aim. He sought to capture the scene as it actually happened, without staging or intervention - Ginsberg once described him as an "invisible" photographer. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Harold Chapman photographed street fashion on the Kings Road, London, for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the 1970s and early 80s, he worked in Britain doing picture research and produced several books. In 1984, The Beat Hotel was published by Montpellier/Geneva based publisher, gris banal.
Harold Chapman's photographs are unrivalled in exposing the very core of the Beat lifestyle. They comprise a unique record, both historic and artistic, of the extraordinary people, places and pastimes of the Beat Generation. Chapman's work continues to be exhibited globally, most recently in London in 2010, and California and Paris in 2008. Retrospective exhibition of Harold Chapman's work, covering 65 years (1947 - 2012), hosted at the OMC Gallery for Contemporary Art in Huntington Beach, California. Also, a film of the Beat Hotel focusing on Chapman and his relationship with the Beats, by Alan Govenar, started a mini tour in USA.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

All photos from Harold Chapman / Harold Chapman's portraits by Claire Chapman

Mr. Chapman, when was your first desire to become involved in the photography art?
At the age of seven.  Although I didn’t know it then, my father introduced me to the magic of photography.  He took me to a tiny shop in a back street in my home town and bought me a “magic photo set”.  A galleon, and a butterfly, crude drawings on pieces of celluloid.  It had a small packet of “magic paper”, a couple of pieces of cardboard and some paperclips.  The magic paper was clipped under the galleon and the butterfly and left in the sun for twenty minutes.  Another packet had “magic crystals” in it.  Mixed with water in a saucer, the two sepia images were then soaked for ten minutes and then washed… Pure magic, and photography has remained to me magic ever since.

What does the IMAGE mean to you & what does “photo” offered you?
Later on, I wanted to be an artist to draw all the amazing things that I saw around me in everyday life, but I couldn’t learn to draw so I thought of the magic of photography.  Buying a cheap box camera, I tried to take documentary photographs.  I quickly realised the limitations of my primitive equipment and sought out a better camera in a junk shop and then taught myself how to develop and print…  I soon realized that the camera gave me a marvellous means of self-expression and, more than that, freedom.  Being a follower of jazz from an early age, I used to go and see jazz bands that often played for dances in a ballroom.  I quickly got what I thought was a very good picture of Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight.  I became a fan of Harry Gold, as he was probably the only jazz musician in England who played a bass saxophone… he reminded me of the American jazz bass saxophonist, Adrian Rollini… Next time Harry Gold appeared at the ballroom, I was there with my print to collect my first and probably my last autograph!  “That’s rather good,” he said, when I showed him my print.  “Can I order a dozen?”…  So I saw at once that I could earn a living with a camera.

What do you learn about yourself from the photography?  What characterize your work & progress?
The first thing that I found out about myself was that having a camera made me walk about… made me look at everything that I saw.  It made me study light… I never bothered to read books on photography.  I just looked through newspapers, magazines and, above all, all the newsreels at the cinema.  I soon discovered that most of this was a load of crap, carefully set up, carefully arranged to make some kind of a point which to me didn’t exist in my reality.  So I became obsessed with trying to photograph and catch events without disturbing them, fondly imagining with the arrogance of youth that I was actually capturing reality!  

What are some of the most memorable shoots you've had?
The most memorable shoots I’ve had were when working on a commission to do a guide book to France.  I had a minuscule budget to complete a tour of France in a year, so I fitted out a Citroen 2CV van and drove around France, sleeping inside the van or by the roadside, in ruins, in fields, and cooking my meals in the open air.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best moment was when I went to Hungary for “a weekend”.  Everything became pure chance in my favour all the way along.  I had an assignment to go to Tokaji which was Hungary’s most famous wine.  The pix were part of a wine book that I was working on and needed to be done in a hurry.  By chance, when I arrived, it was the annual wine market the following morning and, even more of a chance, it became foggy which was marvellous for atmospheric shots as Tokaji was notorious for its fogs.  
The worst moment was having to leave the Beat Hotel, for it was so cheap that it gave me an enormous amount of freedom.  It cut my living expenses down so I was able to refuse most assignments which didn’t interest me in the slightest and do what I wanted to do.  

What is the “thing” you miss most from the BEAT HOTEL?
The freedom to return to the hotel any time of the day or night and go to sleep, cook when I wanted, paint the room in any style I liked, and generally be free to play jazz on the record player in the middle of the night without disturbing anyone, because nobody minded.

Who from THE BEATS had the most passion for the image & camera lens?
Ian Sommerville, who had been lent the latest model Leica, was experimenting with a bizarre photographic idea he had, that he would be able to photograph everything and compress it down into one molecule.  He was working daily, putting up on the wall a collage of everything.  He would then take a photograph of it, get it enlarged and the following day put that photograph on the wall and start a new collage around it, and so on.  Everything was slowly fading away into infinity, as he called it, which looked like a grey nothing… rather like the micro dot used by spies.  One of these pictures was used as a cover for one of Burroughs’ books but in the end Ian lost interest in the project.  However, he did lots of other similar projects of multiplying images.  For example, being a mathematical genius, he calculated how many photos of ten dollar notes he would need to have an enlargement showing a million dollars… which didn’t take him very long.  

Which memory from BEAT HOTEL makes you smile? Do you remember anything funny from Paris?
The Beat Hotel was always fun… was always Da Da… always Surreal.  A typical event, I came down early one morning to have coffee and croissants in the café, which was deserted… nobody there.  I cleared my throat, coughed… called out, “Anybody there?”  No answer.  Next to the café, Madame Rachou had her own room with windows on to the café and an open door.  There were no lights on in there, I peered in and couldn’t see anything so sat down, assuming Madame Rachou had probably gone out and would be back in a second.  Suddenly, to my surprise and needless to say, my amusement, a dirty blanket flipped up from Madame Rachou’s armchair in her room and she shouted out, “I am not here!” and covered herself up with the blanket.  So I left, having a good giggle.  I am sure this was just one of her methods of testing the honesty of her clients, getting to know who was honest or not!  So I went round the corner, had a good laugh and found another café for a quick breakfast.  
My life in Paris was always filled with strange bizarre events.  One day, I was walking through a shopping arcade which was rather gloomy, dusty, with strange arcane shops.  For example, one was called “Rubber” and specialised in selling strange objects, always useful, such as every conceivable type of rubber washer, rubber plug, rubber stamps made to order, rubber hats, rubber hoods, etc., etc.  Next door was a dull seedy-looking toy shop.  Always on the look-out for something interesting, I noticed there was a bathroom scene with two naked girl dolls in the bath.  The next day I passed through again and saw that this day, there were three naked girl dolls in the bath and the following day, back to two.  Intrigued by this and having a paranoid mind, imagining secret messages and secret signals everywhere, I immediately took a picture… Suddenly, the door burst open and a fierce short little man with thick horn-rimmed glasses leapt at me, seized me by the throat, shouting: “It was Mr. White that sent you, wasn’t it?”  Completely surprised, I protested my innocence, “No, no, no, I’ve never heard of Mr. White!”  Peering at me more closely, he apologised profusely and said, “I mistook you for somebody else.” He rushed back into the dirty shop and peered at me through the uncleaned window, glaring at me.  Typical of the amusing funny things that happened to me all the time.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from THE BEATS?
My most vivid memory of the Beats is of Ginsberg and Orlovsky trying to buy heroin in the Café de l’Odeon.  One day I was with Peter Orlovsky and Ginsberg and a sick junkie desperate for a fix.  They were given strict instructions on how to proceed to score in the Café de l’Odeon at midnight.  The money was to be put between the pages of a book and they were told to look out for a Chinaman who would arrive at midnight and sit alone at a table.  Ginsberg then had to go and sit down at the table and politely say, “Would you like to have a look at this book that I’ve been reading?”  The Chinaman simply said, “No.”  And that was the end of that.  This may sound an absolutely trivial non-event but for me the absurdity of the situation was so ridiculous that it has always stuck in my mind to this day.

What is your favorite photo from “BEAT HOTEL” & “BEATS IN PARIS”, how did the idea of the books come about?
I had seen the exhibition of “My Paris” by John Deakin and also “Love on the Left Bank” by Ed van der Elsken so I decided to do a book on Paris, so the Beat Hotel was just a small part of a ridiculous project which would have filled about four books the size of four telephone directories.  My favourite photo from “The Beat Hotel” is the one of the poet Kaja.  I was fast asleep at about 2am when a knock on my door awakened me.  On opening the door, there was a picture of Kaja looking very rough and absolutely out of it.  She mumbled, “Would you like to take a photograph of suffering?”  “Yes,” I said, ushering her into my room and reaching for my camera, always ready and set.  I took three or four very quick pictures.  Above all, this image is probably the most striking shot that I took in the Beat Hotel and has remained a firm favourite ever since.   My favourite photo from “Beats a Paris” is Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg  sitting on a double-sided bench.  Much to my amusement, people have started doing reenactments of this scene and even sending them to me!  

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experience in Paris?
The city of Paris at this time was itself great entertainment.  My favourite street artist was a Belgian character called Mouna.  He used to publish a little tiny magazine called “Le Brulot” that he sold at night in the cafes.  He always used to dress up in a strange costume or other.  For example, one night I was eating in my favourite Greek restaurant and in he came, dressed up in a World War One aviator’s leather helmet and goggles, carrying an alarm clock and a boxing glove on one hand.  Standing on a chair, he set off the alarm clock and when everybody was staring at him, put the clock down and punched the boxing glove with his other hand, shouting out: “Voila la force de frappe!”  At this time, the French had got an airforce of special bombers to carry atomic bombs called La Force de Frappe.  Quite idiotic, of course.  His action made everybody laugh.  He then went round selling his little magazine…  I had also seen him dressed as a priest, walking around street posters writing on them with a felt pen, “Lisez Mouna”, advertising his magazine… quite safe to do.  I couldn’t imagine the French police arresting a priest for writing graffiti on posters!  However, what I liked best of his numerous acts was when he dressed up as Sherlock Holmes, riding a bicycle along the Avenue de l’Opera with the front hub of the bicycle wheel set off centre so that the front of the bike went up and down, ringing a large cow bell.  This collected a crowd when he jumped off.  Taking off his Sherlock Holmes hat, he handed out beautifully engraved cards with the words, “Mouna, defectif mental”…  then went round collecting money.  This gave me an idea that I ought to do a street performance so I had a very official looking charcoal grey suit with a long jacket made up for me… which looked rather like a cross between an inspector of some kind, and a teddy boy.  There were two large pouches on the inside of the jacket in which were a pair of black plastic folders filled with my street photographs.  After much practice, I became quite good at a quick draw like the gunfighters out of Western B movies…  Much to my surprise, no one who I held up with my two folders ever refused to look at them!  And I had much fun with this.  Unknown to me, I had once shown the two portfolios (of my permanent portable perambulating exhibition) to the Theatre Critic of the New York Times who took my card and that was that…  A few weeks later, I had a message at the Beat Hotel, would I please go to the New York Times News Bureau, so I figured out that I was called there to give the staff a bit of a laugh.  On arriving at the office, a small group of journalists gathered around and I did my number and at the end of it all I was offered work for the New York Times News Bureau covering Europe… which I accepted on a freelance basis.  This is an example of my life always being ruled by pure chance and luck!

I would like to describe how you did spend one typical day in Paris
Well, I never had a typical day ever!  Every day was different.  But we may as well pick one, that is, when I spent about three months documenting the end of Les Halles and its actual physical destruction.  Les Halles was the central food market in Paris.  Unfortunately it was in a strategic place and created chaotic confusion around the Victor Baltard cast iron covered market, spilling out into the streets, which were effectively blocked.  It had to close sharp at 7am and everything cleared away by 8am so that the traffic could flow freely.  I might be up at 4am while the market was at its height and I used to get up when the Beat Hotel had just about gone to bed and was now quiet, silent, dark.  I would walk over to the Right Bank, over the Pont Neuf, and suddenly, in the deserted streets, would arrive in the area of the market which was bursting with energy and activity.  I would go into my favourite bar, Au Pied de Cochon (At the Pig’s Foot).  Usually I was lucky and got my favourite spot round the corner of the curved bar where I could sip my strong black coffee and, unobserved, photograph the scene around the bar, of the colourful butchers in their blood-stained white gowns, rather like surgeons in the First Aid Station of a battlefield in World War One!   Drunken lads finishing off a night out and market dealers having their breakfast of a Café Calva… a coffee liberally dosed with Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy… or a bowl of onion soup.  Having warmed up in the café, I would wander round trying to find something of significance, like a wandering brush seller hung all over in every conceivable type of brush, trying to get a good picture of him as he always used to curse me when he saw me coming and tried to turn away.  Keeping a weather eye open for the police, as they, too, would try to remove me from the market so I used to hide my camera under my jacket and keep well out of their way.  As dawn approached and the time came for the big clear up, I would hang around… like lots of other people.  A pile of beautiful unsold fresh food picked only a few hours before, in Provence, for at the last moment of the market there was always a mad rush as anyone could help themselves, as the unsold food would be crushed up and carted off to the dump.  I would then stagger back to the Beat Hotel with my treasure, put it in my room and go off wandering about, photographing the activity as Paris woke up and went to work.  By about 10 o’clock, I was usually quite exhausted and went back to the Beat Hotel to have a sleep and later on when I woke up, developed the night’s films by diving into the bed, covered over with coats, the curtains drawn, to load my developing tank and develop them, fix them and wash them in the sink and then hang them up to dry on string stretched across the room with wooden clothes pegs clipped on the bottom to keep them straight, then back again for another sleep. 

What are some of the most memorable tales from BEAT HOTEL?
The most memorable tale from the Beat Hotel was the first meeting with Burroughs in Gregory Corso’s room.   He was sitting on the floor in a trance-like state while I was talking and photographing Gregory Corso.  Suddenly, he mumbled a phrase.  “Pardon,” I said, “I couldn’t hear you.”  Gregory intervened. “This is my friend, William Burroughs,” he said.  “I’m sorry, Mr Burroughs, I couldn’t hear what you said, could you repeat it?” He mumbled again, more loudly.  I still couldn’t hear what he said and asked him to repeat it louder.  “Photography is like Zen Buddhism,” he croaked, and then mumbled, “Why don’t you turn on…” and relaxed back into a trance-like state, and that is all he said for the rest of the time I was in the room.   
Madame Rachou used to spy on everybody and controlled everybody with an iron hand.  Some artists couldn’t pay the rent so Madame Rachou took paintings instead and had a huge store in her cellar.  Unfortunately, when she sold the hotel to Monsieur and Madame Laigle, in an act of unspeakable vandalism they burned the lot… much regretted when dealers descended on the hotel, after murals and art work, but they had destroyed everything!

In which photo can someone see the best of your work? Which of your shooting would you consider to be the best?
A very difficult question, this.  There are so many pictures I have taken that are the best at the time, but as I have no particular subject that I concentrate only on, or specialize in, I am always moving on and soon find that I am again taking “the best”.  But a typical “best” photo was one I took of John Cage.  Naturally, by pure chance, I was wandering round the streets looking for anything to set me off taking pix, when passing a stage door of a theatre in Paris, I never knew which one, nor was I particularly interested, I just noticed a friend of mine, a photographer, going in, and asked what he was going to photograph.  “It’s a photo call for the press for Merce Cunningham.”  Never having shot ballet before, I thought this could well be an interesting session to crash into.  Following behind my friend… hugging the shadows, of course, I edged my way into a crowd of press photographers in the process of photographing Merce Cunningham and his troupe of ballet dancers.  Much to my amazement, who should I notice but John Cage, in charge of producing the music, standing there in a fantastic back-lit cloud of tobacco smoke, which I managed to get quickly before it all broke up and changed.  Naturally, I’d just got in at the end and missed the ballet dancing so wandered off around the corridors and again, much to my amazement, I found Merce Cunningham changing his clothes in his dressing room with the door open, which I managed to get a couple of pix of before it was slammed shut.  But anyway, the pic that I was very pleased with and was my best picture for some time was John Cage.  But like I always say, it’s always chance that finds my pictures for me, not me, as I just wander about at random.  I suppose this little anecdote typifies the way I work.  I just love finding pictures by chance, be it… whatever!

How would you describe your contact to people, when you are “on the project”?
When I was on a project, more or less anywhere, my desire was to have no contact with anybody at all.  Basically not speaking to them, just observing them and photographing them.  If I found that I was disturbing people and they would pose and act out situations which I didn’t like, I would simply walk away and forget about it.  This might be thought of as a peculiar way of working but I found that I would get exactly what I wanted, always by chance. 

Are there any memories of all GREAT PEOPLE you meet which you’d like to share with us?
Henri Cartier-Bresson.  I can remember being invited to lunch by Martine Frank to meet Cartier-Bresson who was one of my idols, especially for his street photography.  Speaking of photography, he said, “There are two ways of doing it.  One is to travel round the world in 24 hours and the other is to stay somewhere and sniff around… And always be true to your own subjectivity.”  Very sound advice as I never had money to go round the world in 24 hours but enjoyed staying in places for months at a time and trying to understand the culture.

Of all the people you’ve meet, who do you admire the most?
I actually don’t admire anyone more than anyone else.  I’ve had a long life and different people have meant different things at different times, but with a shifting emphasis on what is important to me at certain times... but I usually admire people for a phrase that they have spoken which I have never forgotten… for example, Alan Sillitoe, the writer, once said: “Everything is copy.”  So as I write, I have used this advice and found that it is possible to write about absolutely anything. 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Living in the Beat Hotel was the most interesting period of my life.  The hotel itself was a liberating experience for anyone creative, for one was free to do more or less whatever one liked!  Quite a few artists had their “studio” there, which was cheap and they could set it up however they liked, unhindered by a brood of children, a nagging wife left at home, or whatever, and get on with the work unhindered.  I found that it was so cheap and it was so easy to get any kind of quick job if one needed any cash, clearing tables in restaurants, acting as wine waiter in a vernissage, working as a street photographer!   Thus I had an immense amount of time to devote to what I was passionately interested in at that time, which was wandering around at random in the streets of Paris, looking for interesting little bars, cafes, restaurants, shops, markets, street posters and street scenes.  

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Anyone who asks me this question has to have a similar temperament to me or they wouldn’t ask me in the first place!   I would always ask them : “What do you like?”  I immersed myself in the streets because I never knew what my adventure would turn out to be.  In the 50s and 60s street photography was easy to do because there was cheap travel and even cheaper hotels, especially in France.  Another thing I’ve learnt is that if a chance comes your way, it’s there to be taken.  

What do you feel is the key to your success as a photographer?
Sticking entirely to whatever obsession I was going through at any given time in my life and totally ignoring all the bad advice of the well-meaning people who did everything to dissuade me in my early life.  “If you go on like this, you will starve to death,” people used to say, but I never did and always seemed to eat well and be able to carry on as I liked.  So I think the key to success is to be absolutely pigheaded and obsessed and that’s it.  If you don’t like the lifestyle, then find something else.

What is the secret of the magical Chapman’s hands & eyes? What characterize your photos?  
Patience.  I once had an obsession that I wanted to take a picture that expressed Pere Lachaise cemetery.  I wandered around there, looking at tombs of the great and famous.  But I never actually saw what I wanted.  After about a year of on and off visits to the cemetery, I was wandering around when suddenly the light changed and a downpour of rain with thunder and lightning swept across Paris.  I was soaked right to the skin very quickly, but I was so taken with the fantastic lighting effect in the dim sinister light, the graves washed with running water and looking black in the dim light.  I suddenly came across a gravestone with a statue of a man lying on it, wearing a top hat.  That was the picture.  Pure chance and always remembering that that is what I wanted, although I didn’t know it at the time as I really have no creative imagination, only acute powers of observation, and eventually it would appear in front of the camera, rather like a materialised vision at a séance. 

What is your “secret” PHOTO DREAM?
Secret photo dreams are always nightmares.  As soon as I took up photography seriously, I had recurring nightmares that were definitely influenced by Salvador Dali’s paintings.  I used to dream of a soft camera that, when trying to take pictures, would become like plasticine.  Another one, an even worse nightmare, was incredible events happening in front of me and I was utterly unable to decipher the complicated incomprehensible symbols on the camera.  Another one was trying to take readings with a light meter that again produced incomprehensible numbers.  These dreams would be brought about by being slow, clumsy and unable to manipulate the cameras fast enough.

What is the strangest desire that someone have request in the shooting?
Normally I very rarely ever got asked for anything. I used to get assignments to photograph events and situations but as far as I can remember, they were just normally run of the mill shots that any working photographer would do.  But all the really interesting pictures just happened by chance.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music & photo?
From music, Norman Cave, the trombone player, who used to come into the Mandrake Club in Meard Street, Soho, London, which was a crummy cellar dump where jazz musicians would gather after their gigs and hold informal jam sessions.  I particularly liked this venue as the complications of the licencing laws for alcohol in England were particularly bizarre.  After 11pm at night, which was the closing time of English pubs then, you could only get a drink if you bought a meal.  At the Mandrake they served a huge plate of salad which legally constituted a meal, so every time you wanted to have a drink, say, a pint of beer, you got a plate of salad.  Most of the salads sadly never got eaten nor were they intended to be, they were all scrapped at the end of the night’s session and probably ended up as pigswill.  So, as the place was always littered after 11 o’clock at night with salads, if one was discreet, one didn’t even have to buy a drink but simply helped oneself to two or three salads and had a large healthy meal! … One day, I was wandering around at dawn in Hampstead with my camera, looking for something to photograph in the deserted streets.  Having given up, I decided to go home about half past nine and much to my amazement who should be coming out of one of the houses, dressed in full evening dress, but Norman Cave.  “What on earth are you doing here at this time in the morning?”  “I have just come from my embouchure tutor after a gig.  I have to keep on learning all the time,” he said.  That taught me something I have remembered all my life and that is, every day I carry on trying to learn something new, practise a better way of holding the camera, breathing, etc., and even at 85 I know I don’t know very much but I will keep on trying to learn until the moment I drop dead.  From photography, I learned from John Deakin in the 1950s, in Dean Street, Soho, in London.  There used to be a rather worn out, dilapidated dump called Aux Caves de France, a drinking club with jazz music with an electric guitar player grinding out 1930s pop standards.  Unknown to me, I was standing next to a rather small little man who offered me a drink and asked me what I was doing.  I replied pretentiously, “Photographing Soho.”  It turned out that he was John Deakin who at this time was working for Vogue and was also, in his words, a documentary street photographer.  I asked him if I could show him my work to get a professional opinion on what I was attempting to do…  “I shall be very severe,” he said, as I shuffled off to go and get the folder of prints to show him.  He looked through all my pix without saying a word and then said, “Carry on like this, take a picture of a guy digging his chick and the hardness of an ashtray.  Get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and go to photograph markets.”  That phrase I of course have never forgotten and very soon I was able to reorder my life and carry it out… Cities by dawn light are magical places, street markets that have been busy all night are about to close down… all this makes for interesting photography.  I went to an exhibition that he had in David Archer’s gallery in Soho, the first in London that combined a bookshop, a coffee bar and an art gallery.  He had an exhibition called “My Paris”.  I had never seen such stark, contrasty, rough grainy prints before but I thought they were all masterpieces.  They in fact inspired me to get off to Paris and do a book called “My Paris”, pinching his idea and title but not intending to copy his style of photography as I had my own ideas about that .  Of course I never got “My Paris” published as a book but have had pictures from the series published continuously ever since…

Any of blues jazz standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
I have an odd relationship with jazz and the blues.  My favourites wax and wane over the years and I can well go suddenly back to something I was passionately interested in years ago and then forgot.  However, I first became interested in jazz and the blues during World War Two when I heard Bessie Smith singing Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.  That started off my interests.  Unfortunately, shellac was so rare that the record companies in the UK only issued two new 78 jazz records a month!  And what’s more, you had to provide old records in exchange, or they wouldn’t sell them to you!  So in the town where I lived there were only two choices!  Having got a wind-up gramophone, I chatted up the girl in the shop and ordered the two for next month with a promise of a lot of old shellac records.  Next thing was, I had to do a tour of the junk shops of the area, buying up old shellac records, building up a stock for the future!  But suddenly, much to my delight, I discovered that I occasionally came across a record that looked promising.  I even found some records of Louis Armstrong… so that’s how I got started.  Saturday afternoon I was off like a shot from work, scouring record shops and junk shops of the area.  At this time, I soon got on to the old standards like St Louis Blues, Duke Ellington’s The Mooch and Black & Tan Fantasy.  

Some music styles can be fads but the blues & jazz is always with us.  Why do think that is?
The blues is a simple 12 bar form that anybody can learn, easy to remember.  So, when I grew up with this music in the milieu where I was, it was considered bad, rebellious, etc.  Being rebellious myself, I suppose that is why it appealed to me and always has.  The blues players are really dedicated to what they do and put everything into it and it shows and it always touches me physically in the stomach.  

Who from THE BEATS had the most passion for the Blues & Jazz?
Gregory Corso was the only one of the Beats that I ever discussed jazz with.  He was very fond of going to the Blue Note where Bud Powell was playing with his group.  He told me an apocryphal story of Bud Powell going back home in a taxi in the small hours of the morning from a gig there and he turned round to his bass player sitting next to him and said, “What group do you play with, man?” … Bud Powell used to live in Hotel Louisiane, a few minutes’ walk from the Beat Hotel, which was a jazz musicians’ hotel and on every floor was a piano or two and when a pianist moved in, if a piano was vacant he could have it moved into his room…

Are there any memories from Corso which you’d like to share with us? 

In 1957, Gregory Corso was living in a tiny garret in the Beat Hotel in Paris.  He was a great womaniser... especially nuns!  He had an idea to do a book called 'Church' which featured himself walking behind nuns and monks.  He had shown me a superb picture of himself walking along a boulevard behind two monks with long beards... a hard act to follow.  But I liked the idea of walking around Paris with him, looking for nuns.  It was a lovely spring day.  We forgot about the nuns and Gregory wanted to show me the amazing stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle, a favorite of his, as, looking out of the window from his garret, he could see the spire.  He then wanted to show me Place Furstenberg, a beautiful tiny square on the Left Bank, where the artist Delacroix once lived.  Suddenly... serendipity... an old nun of the Order of the Sacred Heart appeared walking across the square.  Gregory hastily rushed behind her and I got a picture for his book... that never got finished or published, 'Church'! ... A few days later, I met by chance a girl who told me Gregory had asked her to lunch, and she was excited to be honored with a lunch invitation with Gregory Corso, the poet, in his garret room on Paris' Left Bank.  She told me she had eagerly rushed round and climbed the stairs.  After a bit of chit-chat, Gregory says, 'OK, now take off your clothes.'  'But,' she said, 'I thought you invited me to lunch.'  'What's the matter,' he said. 'You a lesbian, or something?'  Picking up a green pepper from off the table, he tore it in half and threw it to her... 'Here you are, here's your lunch.'  She left.

Gregory Corso was the only one of the Beats that I ever discussed jazz with.  He was very fond of going to the Blue Note where Bud Powell was playing with his group.  He told me an apocryphal story of Bud Powell going back home in a taxi in the small hours of the morning from a gig there and he turned round to his bass player sitting next to him and said, “What group do you play with, man?” … Bud Powell used to live in Hotel Louisiane, a few minutes’ walk from the Beat Hotel, which was a jazz musicians’ hotel and on every floor was a piano or two and when a pianist moved in, if a piano was vacant he could have it moved into his room…

Who are your favorite blues jazz artists, both old and new, would you like to meet and shoots?

Unfortunately all my favourites are dead!  But I would love to have had the opportunity to shoot Bessie Smith.  However, strange as it may seem, as I have such eclectic odd tastes in my choice of subjects that I like to shoot, the chances of me ever paying to go into a concert are zero, as any free time that I have, I like to wander the streets.  A street photographer, that was my ambition in life and I succeeded at it.  However, I used to crash in to jam sessions in smoky cellars and seedy dives to take pictures.  But I was never particularly interested in celebrities or famous people as I was more interested in a visual scene that I would stumble across by chance… the Surrealists’ idea of a chance encounter.  If I had an assignment from a newspaper or a book publisher for illustrations, they never seemed to include any jazz or blues musicians, unfortunately.  I never ever wanted to meet anybody as normally I never talk to my subjects if it can be avoided, as I like to take photographs unnoticed. 

Which of the beats were the most difficult and which was the most gifted on pickup lens?
I’ve always regarded everything that I photographed with the attitude that nothing was more difficult than anything else and what I had got was what I had got and if I didn’t like it I might try again, if a chance presented itself, but in any case what I liked in my pictures changed backwards and forwards over the years according to my erratic moods.  

Difficult question but, which of the beats do you consider the best friend?
Allen Ginsberg was more friendly than anybody else… he explained more ways of survival in the paranoid world of the times, which I little understood, and he helped me a lot to start to see how it all worked.

How you would spend a day with THE BEATS again?
Walking about the streets of Paris and listening to what they had to say.  I used to pick up very interesting poetic phrases from Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and I always remember the first few words William Burroughs spoke to me, at our first meeting… Photography is like Zen Buddhism… why don’t you turn on.  A very apt description which I never forgot.  

I would like to put a song or a characterization next to each name: Jack Kerouac, Alen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Harold Norse, Brion Gysin & Madame Rachou
I find it impossible; this is quite beyond me as they are all such amazingly complex characters.

Is the “BEAT” a way of life & what mistakes of the Beat Generation would you wanted to correct?
The Beat Generation is a way of life. I wouldn’t presume to attempt any judgment as I am a neutral observer.

Do you think that your art comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
All three, but I believe everything that ever happens to me when looking for pictures is always pure chance. 

What are the things that you miss most from your generation? Do you feel betrayed or satisfied of your generation?
I was happy to get out of my generation and have had very little to do with them since… I always had a strong feeling that I never belonged in the world at all.  Until the age of 60, I always had the feeling I was the other side of a thick pane of impenetrable glass and I believed that I was a total outsider who could not understand how people could behave in such incomprehensible ways, creating so many conflicting social systems, so much exploitation.  

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
Life is a learning process.  Having learned nothing whatsoever about what anything is really about, I would simply make an entirely new set of mistakes, avoiding the old ones, and I don’t think I would do any better than I ever did as a new set of problems would arise as I would try to avoid old mistakes and, having solved old problems, I would simply be confronted by new ones that I had never encountered before.  I would make new mistakes, new frustrations and new failures and, of course, out of all that, new successes.  My main tool of working has been, and is, and always will be, chance.    

Are there any memories from “Psychedelic London”, which you’d like to share with us?
Granny Takes A Trip was a shop at the World’s End of the King’s Road.  It was the most unusual shop in London.  A shop devoted to bizarre fashions, such as punk, etc.  The façade of the shop was always changing, for example, a half a car was sticking out of the window.  Another change was when the façade was painted white with a cartoon of Jean Harlow.  I had just stopped in front of it when, much to my delight, a real old English granny walked past and I caught her head in the bottom corner of the picture.  Another time, I was again walking by and this time it was painted with the head of a Red Indian with a musician carrying a guitar going in the doorway.  I had a whole series of these, some of which were published in a calendar called The Swinging Sixties, and many of the others were used to illustrate articles on Swinging London.  Granny Takes A Trip was one of my big sales.  I used to visit Granny Takes A Trip for a minute or two once a year when I used to hitchhike from France, or get an assignment from the Cleveland Plain Dealer for fashion pix in London and then used to make sure I did my circuit up and down the King’s Road, walking in the gutter. 

When did you last laughing (and cry) and why?
Last laughed at the British comedy, Dad’s Army, where the missing part of a machine gun was found in a pocket.  Last cried when Jack Millar, the founder of The Billie Holiday Circle, left his massive collection of Billie Holiday, everything, to six friends.  Cried when playing cassette of TV broadcast in the US of a jam session of Billie Holiday singing, with Lester Young, Fine and Mellow.

TopFoto Gallery - The Beat Hotel


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