Harold Chapman: The man who never missed a Beat

From his attic room in the infamous Beat hotel in Paris, the photographer Harold Chapman was ideally placed to capture the central players in a literary revolution. Rob Sharp meets him

Two men in their twenties walk through rainy Paris in 1956. They settle, back-to-back, on a bench in the sixth arrondissement, in a square once regularly frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, a bespectacled, bearded man instinctively reaches for a Pentax camera and silently fumbles with its buttons.

The man on the right of the resulting frame, Allen Ginsberg, was one of the world's most influential postwar poets. The fellow on the left, his lover Peter Orlovsky, while a less-accomplished rhapsodist, had an equally intimate knowledge of the Beat movement's inner circle: Ginsberg, William S Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin. For several years the Beat's central players based themselves at a Parisian hotel, the "Beat Hotel", their every movement recorded by a softly-spoken photographer from Kent. Now 83, some of Harold Chapman's most influential pictures are set to be exhibited at Chelsea's Proud Gallery from early next week. Ginsberg passed away in 1997, Burroughs the same year, Corso in 2001, Gysin 1986, Orlovsky in May of this year. In many ways, Chapman is the last of a dying breed. While the Beat's oeuvre lives on in text, Chapman now lives back in Deal, the town of his birth, in a tiny house once owned by his father.

"I look back at those days in Paris as the happiest in my life," says Chapman, his voice soft, halting, kind. "I discovered you could live frugally with very little and it didn't affect whether or not you were happy. All the worries people have about the rent, or the income tax, or insurance, had gone. Youth, of course, sees the world in different eyes. I am old, I can't see it the way they see it. But there are ways of existing quite cheaply."

Located on the eastern seaboard, far from London, Deal is hanging on to England by its fingernails. In the summer months sunshine beats down on fisherman's cottages, Georgian town houses, a Dickensian seafront. Someone could have lifted such scenes from a 1950s postcard. Chapman, still bearded, still bespectacled, but slightly slower than in his prime, fills his tiny sitting room, with its Alan Bennett letters and John Cale box-set rubbing shoulders on its shelves. Even though Chapman HQ is a short drive from the railway station, as a boy, he couldn't wait to leave. He was born in 1927, but a fall on to concrete as a baby caused what he claims was minor brain damage. He wanted to be a painter when he was growing up, but was also highly dyslexic (and he couldn't handle a brush because of the tumble in his infancy). His father wanted him to enter a trade. Instead, as a teenager, he freelanced as a photographer. An encounter with a local tramp cemented a life-long belief that "security is meaningless".

"Everyone was against me being a photographer," he says. "But, I thought, if that tramp could be happy without security, why couldn't I?"

In 1954, Chapman moved to London and fell into the orbit of Vogue photographer John Deakin. It was Deakin's obsession with street photography and Francis Bacon's Colony Room crowd that ignited a similar passion in Chapman for capturing on film society's disaffected artists. While Ian McEwan, a friend of Chapman's later in his life, wrote in the 1990s that Chapman's pictures operated through a paranoid "filter" of "sinister plots", often they were just bizarre juxtapositions occurring by chance: nuns inspecting lingerie posters, a junkie in front of a Gothic church, taking a bite out of an Edenic apple. Serendipity, Chapman modestly claims, has always played a huge role in his life.

"Chance absolutely ruled my career all the way through," he adds. "It was unbelievable. You just couldn't believe it. I just tried to seek out the visual. That's why I moved to Paris; I just wanted to be in the most visually interesting place. The rest just seemed to happen around me."

Located at 9 Rue Gît-le-Coeur in the city's vibrant Latin quarter, the "Beat Hotel" – a term later coined by Corso – was run by local character Madame Rachou, an alleged former member of the French Resistance who encouraged artists to populate her 42 rooms. Ginsberg and Orlovsky moved there in the mid-1950s, shortly followed by Burroughs, fresh from his sexual and narcotic adventures in Morocco. The latter completed the manuscript to his paranoid screed Naked Lunch while there, its random order influenced by Gysin's "cut-up" technique.

Chapman moved to Paris in 1954. He survived, he said, using abandoned film he found in dustbins and hustling tourists for overpriced Polaroids. A chance encounter with the painter Patrick Shelley led to introductions to the same-sex couple "Mr and Mrs Ginsberg" and a scary encounter with Burroughs whacked out on heroin – who gnomically remarked, upon meeting Chapman, that he thought "photography was like Zen Buddhism" – followed quickly by the young photographer moving permanently into the hotel's cramped attic room.

It is unclear how central a character Chapman was at the hotel, with its endless cast of peripheral and central players coming and going until it was sold in 1963. Ginsberg later remarked that "in the attic there was a photographer who didn't talk to anybody for two years." But free from the hard-drug culture promoted by Burroughs and Ginsberg, Chapman's photo-journalism was both lucid and exhaustive. The Ginsberg of his photos is not the jittery, bald, bearded bear of later life; he was olive-skinned, full-lipped and seemingly in love. Burroughs was yet to become the snarling monster undermining his own status in Gap commercials; he was perennially bespoke, too vain to allow Chapman to photograph him in his glasses. Chapman's pictures, collected in The Beat Hotel, a randomly ordered, cut-up-inspired 1984 book, now a hideously expensive collector's item, pay tribute to the love of detail and luck instilled in him by Deakin. There are the shots of Corso larking around behind nuns; Burroughs' wide-eyes and crow's feet; impromptu jam sessions and embraces; Ginsberg lounging around in bed, or surprised next to advertising hoardings. A cynic might say his subjects could be any group of young artists messing about on Parisian boulevards. They just happened to be immensely famous.

"The most important thing was the cross-fertilisation of ideas between people," continues the photographer. "That was because it was a closed environment. The French have a saying which is, 'Without fermentation there can be no wine'. There was this crappy dump which no one could take seriously and all these people writing books in there and producing ideas that went on to change the world. Censorship has vanished because of the work of Ginsberg and Burroughs, and all that stems from there. Cut-ups and jumbling things up is particularly widespread in advertising. They didn't invent it – it was used by the Dadaists – but they popularised it."

Chapman has a razor-sharp recall of the time, and has whittled his anecdotes to perfection. Ginsberg, he says, opened his eyes to Parisian architecture. Burroughs, who he describes as meticulous in both his appearance and the arrangement of his spartan room, told him to "be invisible" and to become a "permanent tourist". But he insists he found Burroughs sinister: the heavy drug user could often be heard acting out dialogue from his books late at night, character voices echoing along dimly-lit corridors. This never appeared on camera. But Chapman did photograph the trays which Burroughs used to randomly assort Naked Lunch's manuscripts to give it its distinctive "anti-structure".

The hotel eventually boarded up its doors. Chapman began working for The New York Times and had to deal with angry picture editors hoping to sensationalise the Beats' drug-use. By this point, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs had all published their defining works. "I always had a problem with the way newspapers chose to portray my reality," he says. "I would take a picture and look at the different ways it was explained in different papers and it was nonsense. I discussed this with Cartier-Bresson and he told me to always be honest to my own subjectivity. So that's what I've always done." In a bizarre twist, Chapman's iconic photograph of Ginsberg and Orlovsky sitting back to back has been recreated for the publicity material for a forthcoming Ginsberg biopic, Howl, starring James Franco. But its mise-en-scene is now New York, not Paris.

Despite the world's forgetfulness, it seems that like the rest of the Beats, a small part of Chapman will always reside in Rue Gît-le-Coeur. As Burroughs wrote in 1983: "Corsicans bought the hotel, carpeted the rooms, and installed telephones... unheard of in Madame Rachou's day. It was a magical interlude, and like all such interludes, all too brief. 'The things we have never had, remain; it is the things we have that go...' "

The Beat Hotel, Proud Chelsea, London SW3 (020 7482 3867; Proud.co.uk) 29 July to 29 August