Benjamen Chinn’s Paris

by Kim Steele

Benjamen Chinn’s Paris: 1950 – 1951


October 1, 2011 — October 31, 2011

Benjamen Chinn, Paris 1950,



In this era of the Grandiose, Benjamen Chinn’s images speak to a kinder and more gentle spirit. Shooters like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and even the much reduced images of Richard Misrach (the Emperor’s New Clothes himself who illustrated one of his books by shooting sections of grand master paintings and blowing them up to become his own art??) are masking creativity with overwhelming sized prints. Where has the creativity gone? I often ask myself, like the Golden Gate Bridge series of Misrach’s, if they were eight by ten inches would anyone be interested in them??  They are just snapshots in fine clothing.


Richard Misrach, Untitled,



Chinn’s images from Paris in the early fifties bespeak of a personal vision of intimacy and familiarity. Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he acquired the ability to shot up close and personal, without the conscious distance now created with the constructed image. They are presented in a small format, which requires one to study closely the images and the dynamics of the composition. They stand on their own merit.  I feel the atmosphere; I see the vision of the artist, I long to participate in the life of Paris in the fifties. They communicate to me.



Benjamen Chinn, Bookstore, Paris, France,



During his formative days, he hobnobbed with the greats of the Bay area, while studying at the California School of Fine Arts, which later became the San Francisco Arts Institute. Among his cronies were Imogene Cunningham, Ansel Adams and the master himself, Edward Weston.  When moving to Paris, he studied with other masters, including Leger and Giacometti. Street photography has a grand tradition–Atget was the first to explore the notion of ‘observation,’ with his large format camera scouring Paris at the turn of the century. Berenice Abbot brought the prints to life. With the advent of the miniature camera, by Lietz, the world was available to all. No longer the cumbersome field cameras, although Chinn did engage his 4×5 Linhoff in Paris, his best work is with the Rolleiflex.



Benjamen Chinn, Paris, Madeleine from Trois Quartiers,



To see and capture the world around us was an early pursuit of photography, lauded by the likes of Stieglitz and Paul Strand, the first ‘Modernist’ photographer. The exquisite eye of Chinn wrestled the images from the street, as did his influential predecessor, whom he befriended in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson with his recognition of the “Decisive Moment.” Walker Evans wandered the streets of New York with the same aspirations, to observe, to wait and then to render the moment. Participating in the world, not constructing an artifice for the world.

Chinn’s work seems nostalgic and sentimental, but only in light of the onslaught of  constructed and self-conscious image makers crowding the galleries, like the dandy Nan Goldin or Sam Taylor-Wood.



Sam Taylor Wood,



We are invited into their rarefied world, as a guest to feast on their navel gazing, constructions of reality.  Tina Barney has been allowing us into the rich homes of New Englanders for three decades.  I do not find these explorations interesting, insightful or inspiring. And wonder about the level of their creativity. Laurie Simmons started this movement in the seventies, but focused on substantive subjects, like the role of women in society, the suburban home and the power of clothing.


Back to HUGE. Jeff Wall’s images celebrated by curators around the world leave me empty. Yes, they are large and imposing and sometimes even back lighted, like a Duratrans at the airport, but what do they have to offer me, except…an artful stratagem.


Benjamen Chinn,

Previous post:

Next post: