(1925 – 2000)
The poet Charles Olson said, “Art is the only true twin life has.” Walter’s art and life were indistinguishable and he lived the one as he practiced the other. And vice versa.
– Robert Creeley
Walter Chappell (1925 – 2000) is known for intensely provocative photographs of the human body, landscapes, and his Metaflora photographs of the auras of plant and spiritual objects.
Soon after we opened a photography space in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we heard through Dick Thibideau, a wonderful man who ran a motel/hostel and was our single source of archival mat board, that the photographer Walter Chappell was living in Northern New Mexico. Dick was willing to arrange a meeting for us with Walter at the motel in the beautiful village of Pilar, on the Rio Grande.
Having known the work of Walter Chappell, mostly through past issues of Aperture Magazine and by reputation, we were amazed to hear that somebody of his renown and stature within the photography world was living so close to Santa Fe and it seemed that this was not common knowledge. With excitement we made our trip up to Pilar to meet with Walter for an afternoon. Entering a darkened motel room, work laid out on the bed, we immediately felt Walter’s intensity, kindness, and deep spiritual nature. Of course, this carried through to the photographs he showed us, the stories he told and the conversations that began that afternoon and spanned approximately the next 20 years.
From that day forward there was never a moment that we spent with Walter that wasn’t both challenging and in ways, enlightening at the same time. There are many stories written and told about Walter’s unique life style and chosen approaches to living. But beyond all the related narratives, it must be said that Walter stands out as one of the 20th century’s important photographers. From his innovative and ground breaking works dealing with the human form in the 50’s through the spiritually charged Metaflora images, Walter was always pushing the boundaries of photographic “seeing”.
One of our greatest experiences as gallerists was sequencing the photographs for an exhibition of Walter’s work. It is said that one of the definitions of great art is that it can both transcend time and subject matter. This was true for Walter’s work. We were amazed on that afternoon that photographs as varied as nudes, water studies, rock abstractions, and Metaflora’s hung seamlessly irrespective of dates or subjects. His vision, like his life, is both unique and transcendent. Although trying at times, we were pleased and honored to have counted Walter as friend and colleague.
From 1957-1958, he studied with Minor White in Rochester, New York, and introduced White to the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Together they published a series of articles in Aperture on reading the hidden meaning of things through photographs. Chappell was curator of exhibitions and prints at the George Eastman House from 1957-1961 and helped establish the Association of Heliographers, a cooperative photography gallery on Madison Avenue.
Walter Chappell lived in New Mexico at various times in his life: the 60’s, the 80’s and then back again in the 90’s where he lived in his wonderful home in El Rito, New Mexico until his death in 2000.