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The Legend Continues PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Dorschner, BT Contributor   
April 2016

HistoryMiami pays homage to news photographer Tim Chapman

YChapman_1es, it’s true: He once paid for a voodoo curse on a photo editor. (“It worked!”) True: He was able to rush off to the Jonestown massacre because he had $2000 in cash in his work locker. Yes, he slashed a TV camera operator’s cable because the crew was blocking his shot. Trying to stuff a snake down a driver’s throat? Well, that’s an exaggeration.

Tim Chapman, a Miami Herald photographer for four decades, is the kind of person to whom the word “legendary” tends to gets affixed. “Part photojournalist, part action-hero,” Kenny Malone said of him on WLRN when he retired in 2012.

Starting April 15, the public will be able to view the legend close up as HistoryMiami Museum offers an exhibit of some 300 Chapman photographs, with an opening-night conversation between Chapman and his longtime friend, novelist Carl Hiaasen.

“It was always an adventure to ride with Tim,” Hiaasen recalled recently, because he was hell-bent to be first to get to the news, even if it sometimes meant ignoring police barricades, as happened once during an Overtown riot.

Chapman_2The exhibit, which runs through August 14, is part of the museum’s new Center for Photography, funded in part by a $150,000 Knight Foundation grant in the old Miami Art Museum building that’s in the downtown cultural plaza next to HistoryMiami’s original structure.

“I’m a hard-driving son of a bitch,” Chapman told me recently with that good-natured braggadocio that somehow he makes charming. For the show, he’s been working collaboratively, and smoothly, with the exhibit’s curator, Al Diaz, a former colleague. But that doesn’t mean at age 65, he’s lost his fire: “My collection, my photographs, my blood.” He maintains his longtime philosophy: “If you mess with my photo, I have threatened to hang people over the f---ing rail.”

Chapman and I were colleagues for four decades, but on different sides of the newsroom. I worked mostly in features, he in hard news. “Nobody who ever set foot in the Herald newsroom loved hard news more than Tim Chapman,” Hiaasen once wrote.

Tim has what one colleague gently calls a gift for gab, and at the Herald, I often found it hard to end conversations with him. For this story, we talked by phone, at 7:30 a.m., as he sat outside his Big Torch Key home and smoked a cigar.

I started by asking where he was born, and he said Cincinnati, and before I could ask another question, he was off to the races, saying that was just an accident, he’s “really from Kentucky,” his parents growing up in Mount Salem, and that branches into his dad and World War II and postwar employment and deer hunting and pheasants and treasuring a Kodak box camera (“It’s in the museum”) and much more until, after several requests to focus, he said the family moved to Hialeah when he was six.

He went to Hialeah High, Miami-Dade, and UM; always had a love for cameras; and shortly after graduation, he found a job as a Herald lab tech.

Chapman_3At first he was part time, and he made ends meet by catching snakes for researchers (“three dollars a foot”), and it was on an Everglades expedition in an old Jeep that he saw a fire and shot it with a Nikon F -- his first photo to make the newspaper.

While not in the lab, he kept searching for shots -- leading him one time to a small Hialeah grocery with a would-be robber sprawled in the mud. “That was my first body.”

The Herald hired him as a full-time photographer in 1973. He made the big-time in 1978 -- at Jonestown.

“I was at the Herald at 4:00 a.m., working on prints and contests,” when the wire machine hammered out that a congressman might have been shot and a bunch of suicides in Jonestown, Guyana. “I started packing. I used to keep $2000 in my locker in cash, so I was ready to go.” He was at the airport before editors authorized him to make the trip.

The tricky part was getting the last six miles to the jungle commune. The military had a chopper for a half-dozen journalists. “This captain said, ‘You’re not on the list.’” Chapman insisted there must be some mistake. With sweet talk, innocence, and gentle pressure, he got on the chopper.

Chapman_4“You could smell it from hundreds of feet up,” he said. On the ground were more than 900 Americans, including hundreds of children, who had drunk a cyanide-laced drink. Jim Jones, the leader, was face-up near the center, head and bare chest bloated, a red shirt bunched up near his neck.

The stench was so bad that Chapman burned his shirt afterward. “To this day, I’m still shocked. In over a million years, man hasn’t learned a thing.”

He covered Mariel -- from Peru, Key West, and the camps. He also went to Nicaragua covering the Contras war. “I speak Spanish pretty good -- one of the benefits of growing up in Hialeah.”

In a recent interview, Hiaasen recalled the time he went with Chapman in the Bahamas, doing a story on crack cocaine. With a hired driver, they found some users. Chapman started shooting. After a bit, he whispered to Hiaasen: “It’s time to go.”

Chapman had noticed that two guys had left the room, and guessed they’d gone to a back bedroom for guns to seize his expensive photo equipment. The journalists hurried outside -- only to find the driver had already fled. They had to hightail it down the street on foot.

That’s a rare note of caution in the Chapman legend. More typical was a moment in Vero Beach when they were waiting for a child, rescued from kidnappers, to be reunited with his parents. A three-person TV crew set up in front of Chapman’s carefully selected spot, Hiaasen recalled. Chapman pulled out of a knife and sliced the TV cable. “Some words were exchanged, but he was going to get the shot. It’s all about the news.”

Chapman_5

In his later years, when the Herald attempted to adjust to the Internet by creating a “continuous news desk,” Chapman became the early morning roving photographer, using police scanners to find breaking news to post online.

On one chilly winter assignment, he reported from Key Biscayne that it was so cold, catatonic iguanas were plopping from the trees like leaves, recalled Herald editor Casey Frank in a tribute column.

An editor saw Chapman’s account and dared to doubt it. “Half an hour later, he stormed into the newsroom,” Frank recalled, “stalked over to the news desk and threw down a limp green two-foot-long iguana like a poker player revealing a royal flush. Then he launched into a tirade about never, ever doubting him if we know what’s good for us.”

For all his wild man reputation, Chapman was highly disciplined in two ways: frugal living (he was able to retire at 62) and saving his work. A spare bedroom was stuffed with some 750,000 slides, negatives, prints, and newspaper stories -- all properly boxed, by date, catalogued in more than a dozen notebooks.

Legally, some hard-ass might consider this to be Herald-owned work product, but in fact the newspaper generally saved only the prints that were published. Chapman saved the outtakes. Both he and Al Diaz, his curator, said the Herald has periodically cleaned out its drawers and tossed huge amounts of material -- material that Chapman, Diaz, and others sometimes rescued from the floor and trash cans.

Chapman_6

“Storage is expensive,” Chapman said. “The corporation made a business decision.”

When he retired and prepared to move to a house he built himself in the Keys, he offered to donate his collection. HistoryMiami grabbed it. Since then, a lot of photographers have been kicking themselves that they didn’t save their work. “I’m pissed off,” one told me. Others kept much of their work -- but stuffed it uncatalogued into boxes, which means it’s virtually useless unless they spend weeks organizing the material.

Michael Knoll, HistoryMiami’s vice president of curatorial affairs, said the Chapman exhibit will be part of the museum’s plan to establish a “hub for documentary photography” that will include regular photo exhibits. The museum has more than 1.5 million photos in its archives.

In 2014 photographer Bill Cooke, blogger at Random Pixels, complained that the museum’s vast photo collection wasn’t available online. He wrote that Chapman’s were “photographs no one will ever see.”

Knoll said it’s an expensive process to digitize old photos and get the server space to store them -- a process the museum is seeking grants to do. “We’re in the thick of doing this,” he says. “Accessibility is obviously important.”

As far as all the other photographers who might want to donate their work, Knoll said, the museum needs to be selective “to deal with physical limitations.”

Meaning once again, Tim Chapman, newshound, was there first.

 

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