The man behind the camera: legendary Miami photog Tim Chapman retires

It was the day of the iguana, one of many weird interludes in the life of Tim Chapman, a Miami Herald lensman who retired Friday.

12/22/2012 3:20 PM

12/23/2012 5:52 PM

Here is a Tim Chapman story, one of many concerning the Herald photographer who worked his last day this past Friday after 40 years on the job.

It was a frigid morning in South Florida. Tim, our roving a.m. shooter/newsgatherer, was out performing a humdrum chore: looking for a “weather photo.”

The call came in to the news desk around 9. It was Tim checking in from Bill Baggs state park, where the manager had just explained that on bone-chilling days, the park’s iguanas drift off into a trance-like state and go limp, plopping to the ground like ripe mangos. When the weather warms up, they reanimate and skitter away.

And, by God, it was true, Tim said, at least the falling-out-of-trees part. Instead of a carpet of leaves, Bill Baggs was blanketed by catatonic iguanas.

That sounds fishy, an editor told Tim, but he insisted it was so, and he is a very insistent guy. So, OK. We put a blurb online that said the weather was so cold in South Florida it was “raining iguanas in Key Biscayne.” Exaggeration? Maybe a tiny bit. But we figured what the heck. It’s Web only. It will never wind up in the paper.

Tim, though, was a little irate. Half an hour later, he stormed into the newsroom, 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. He was sort of kidding. Maybe.

After that admonition, Tim, ever the environmentalist, took the creature downstairs and (he swears) revived it with his lighter.

Late that night, Tim’s editor got a call on his cell phone from Tim, never a good thing. Tim had had a beer or two, and he was howling, like a grizzly with his paw in a trash compactor. Between threats and curses, he roared that “SOMEBODY is messin’ with our STORY!”

A subsequent call to the news desk revealed that the story had done so well on the Web that they’d decided to run it in the next day’s paper. Except a literal-minded night editor had gotten his mitts on it, phoned Tim and wanted to know how we could possibly say it was “raining iguanas”? Did we count the iguanas? Was it two? Five? Fifty? Shouldn’t we do a little more reporting before making such a bold, sweeping statement? Maybe interview an expert on animal physiology?

For Tim, who hates authority, hates being grilled, hates process, hates editors, it was too much.

The good thing about newsrooms is that they attract quirky, interesting, head-strong individuals. Tim is one. He despises bosses and corporations, loves the outdoors and nature, has no neck but fists like a sock full of rocks. He is fierce, fearless, funny, proud, and maybe a little crazy, but in a good way.

On a newsman’s salary, he helped put his son through medical school. He is retiring with Charlene, his new bride (they were married last month after 15 years together) to a home on stilts in Big Torch Key, miles off the main road, where he can enjoy a drink and smoke a cigar undisturbed while watching the sun sink slowly into still waters. He built that home with his own hands, over a period of years.

As a Herald photographer for four decades, he covered wars, hurricanes, riots, earthquakes, waves of refugees, kidnappings, plane crashes and the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana.

And, on a cold day in January 2008, the one and only “iguana rainstorm” ever to hit Key Biscayne.

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