For 40 years, photojournalist Tim Chapman chronicled the fits and starts of history for the Miami Herald, a career that saw him capturing indelible images of Hurricane Andrew and the Cocaine Cowboys, the Jonestown Massacre and the Mariel Boatlift. But Chapman also captured the small moments that texture life in South Florida, including a largemouth bass jumping in the Everglades and endangered Key Deer at the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.
“I kept everything I shot,” said Chapman, 65. “There are thousands of prints and color slides and digital images, and I cataloged almost everything.”
This meticulous record-keeping ended up benefiting HistoryMiami. The retired newsman donated his files to the museum in 2013 — about 750,000 images, including some personal ones, which is a significant addition to the museum’s archive of 1.5 million images.
On Friday, some of those photographs will be on display as HistoryMiami opens “Newsman: The Photojournalism of Tim Chapman,” an exhibition that captures four decades of local and regional history. Curated by another longtime Herald photographer, Al Diaz, the collection also includes press passes, notebooks, cameras and other news artifacts.
For Chapman, who now lives in a house he built on Big Torch Key, the exhibit is both a retrospective and a thank you. Many of his colleagues will be coming Friday, and columnist and author Carl Hiaasen will be hosting an opening night conversation with him.
“It’s a way of honoring all the great journalists who came through there [the Herald] and the ones who are still there trying to do their jobs under incredible corporate pressure,” he said.
Chapman began taking pictures at 7, when his dad, who served under Gen. George Patton in World War II, turned over his Kodak box camera. His first picture: a heron in the Everglades, a wilderness that would become one of his all-time favorite places. He continued clicking away at Hialeah High, Miami Dade Junior College North and then the University of Miami. By 1972 he was working at The Miami Herald, a recent graduate launching a career that would witness some of the most dramatic events of his hometown.
In 1978, he was one of only four photographers to cover the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, where more than 900 people died in a mass suicide-murder under orders from cult leader Jim Jones. Over the years he also covered stories in Cuba and Haiti. In the newsroom, both editors and reporters knew Chapman kept a police scanner and loved chasing down a good yarn. He figured that one year, during the era of the Cocaine Cowboys and civil wars to the south, he probably shot photographs of about 300 bodies.
“I feel like I covered the events that made the headlines that made Miami what it is today, for better or worse,” he said.
When he retired in 2012, he was worried about the future of newspapers in a digital age. He still is. “My fear is that one day some kid will say, ‘Daddy, what’s a newspaper?’ ” he said. “They’ll have to go to a museum to see one.”
Chapman is no longer taking photographs. He spends a lot of time on his restored 1981 Boston Whaler docked behind his home, and with his son, an emergency room physician in Naples, and a 17-month-old granddaughter. He recently gave away thousands of dollars worth of cameras and equipment to the son of a friend — with one condition. Chapman wants one ecological photo a month sent to him.
“I had the most fun you can have under some brutal conditions, and it was still the best job in the world,” he said. “But I’m done. I’ve moved on to another phase in my life.”
If You Go
What: “Newsman: The Photojournalism of Tim Chapman”
Where: History Miami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami
When: April 15 -Aug. 14. Opening conversation with Carl Hiaasen, 6 to 8 p.m. April 15
Admission: $10 for members, $20 nonmembers