In the shadow of Bella Terra, a photographic exhibition is underway that chronicles a lesser-known French chapter in the history of the counterculture Beat movement.
Through April 21, the OMC Gallery for Contemporary Art in Huntington Beach's Old World Village is showing a collection of British photographer Harold Chapman's black-and-white photographs of poet Allen Ginsberg, writer William S. Burroughs and others icons from the avant-garde literary and artistic movement ignited by Jack Kerouac, author of the seminal book "On The Road."
The photos were taken in the late 1950s during Ginsberg and Burroughs' residency in a no-name, no-frills Paris establishment that came to be known as the Beat Hotel. Chapman captured these and other pictures around the City of Light between 1957 and 1963, when he lived there as a fellow denizen in the "thirteenth class" hotel at 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur in the Latin Quarter.
Chapman, now 85 and living in England, befriended Ginsberg and his boyfriend Peter Orlovsky in Paris, while the couple sought refuge from the obscenity trial in the United States that surrounded the publication of "Howl," Ginsberg's controversial and sexually explicit poem, said Rolf Goellnitz, the German co-founder and co-owner of OMC and its sister showroom in Berlin.
"[The Beats] realized that life is about more and offers other challenges than just try[ing] to be an artist and do[ing] something nice," Goellnitz said.
This exhibit marks the third time that OMC is showing Chapman's photos. The gallery showed them in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 2000, and Huntington Beach in 2007.
But this show is more comprehensive, Goellnitz said, because it consists of other sets of photos on different subjects that Chapman took out in public spaces during his years in Paris. There is a set themed around people milling around or passing by billboards in streets and Metro stations. And there is a collection of Chapman photographs from a long-bygone hub of Parisian activity, the nighttime market at Les Halles.
"The Beat Hotel" is also the name of a new documentary film by director Alan Govenar about that French period in the history of the Beats. The film premiered in New York on March 30, and features pictures from Chapman's Beat Hotel series and an interview with him.
During his time at the hotel — which was owned and managed by a Madame Rachou, who had a reputation for admitting artists and eccentrics who were light on cash — Chapman also photographed the hotel's other inhabitants, who included Gregory Corso and Harold Norse, two icons of the Beat movement.
"It was an entire community of complete oddballs, bizarre, strange people — poets, writers, artists, musicians — and everybody you could ever imagine," Chapman recalled in a sound bite from his interview that appears in the film's trailer.
"One was quite outside society," he added. "Once you went through the door, into the hotel, you were in another world."
Visitors to the exhibit will be visually stepping back into time at OMC.
There is a Chapman photo taken in public of Ginsberg and Orlovsky sitting on a Paris bench with their backs to each other, and a more private one of the two with a small bird perched between Orlovsky's index finger and thumb.
There's also photo of the tall and gaunt Burroughs busy in his hotel room on the manuscript for "Naked Lunch," his most famous work, along with a close-up of a panel of switches that Rachou would manipulate to control the lighting in each of her hotel's rooms.
"It's very significant," said Brandon Loberg, who works at The Beat Museum in San Francisco, where Chapman's Beat pictures will go next, talking about the relevance of the Beat Hotel in the movement's arc.
"Some of the most important works of the Beat Generation were created or completed in Paris."
More information: To learn about the new documentary film and to see a trailer, go to http://www.thebeathotelmovie.com
If You Go
What: "Harold Chapman: The Beat Hotel and Other Images, Made for the Future"
Where: The OMC Gallery for Contemporary Art, 7561 Center Ave. #32 (Old World Village), Huntington Beach.
When: Through April 21
Gallery hours: 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday till Saturday and by appointment