When Robert M. Chamberlain was getting his photographic legs under him, he ran into circumstances fortuitous enough that it is tempting to describe them as a combination of serendipity and full-on cosmic alignment. After studying photography and filmmaking at San Francisco State University, he expended considerable thought and energy trying to establish his personal creative vision.
What better brain to tap than that of the man whose best-known generic career advice was: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity, but they’ve always worked for me.” Yes, also in San Francisco at that time was Hunter S. Thompson, who was then working on his first published book, Hell’s Angels.
Chamberlain approached the father of gonzo journalism and asked for philosophical direction. “He suggested I take photojournalism and make it valuable enough to be artwork,” says Chamberlain, who now lives in Carbondale. For the next half-century, Chamberlain wound that creative perspective into every spool of black-and-white film he ever loaded into a long line of manual-focus Nikons and Leicas.
He became one of the most accomplished chroniclers of a generation of hedonists in Telluride, San Francisco, Hawaii and Aspen. All told, he shot more than 40,000 images, almost all of which were black-and-white and developed by hand in his own darkroom.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Chamberlain moved to Aspen in 1958. He spent his career documenting the character and characters of his adopted hometown, producing a collection of images that tells the story of a community of young Aspen ski bums evolving slowly—and sometimes gracefully—into Aspen old-timers.
Chamberlain was perhaps best known for work in the first incarnation of the Mountain Gazette in the 1970s, where his images, which often captured the most absurd aspects of resort-town sociology, appeared alongside articles penned by the likes of Edward Abbey, George Sibley and Dick Dorworth. He remains perfectly comfortable with the anachronistic nature of his photographic heritage. He loathes digital cameras and the transference of his negatives to digital format. An avid and accomplished downhiller, he also used wooden skis until he had to give the sport up for health reasons.
Recently, the house that Chamberlain lived in with his late-wife, renowned poet Karen, suffered some water damage. “I realized that I could have lost it all,” he says, referring to his prints and negatives.
Now 81, he donated his prints (more than 400) to the Aspen Historical Society, partially for safekeeping and partially to show the world what life was like in the High Country in a time of manual-focus monochromatic photography, wooden skis and dirt streets.
“We love his work,” says Aspen Historical Society curator Lisa Hancock, who has chosen 23 images for an exhibition the museum will host this summer. “His fine black-and-white prints show a unique sensibility to mountain landscapes and the manifestation of the human condition in settings as diverse as nightclubs, street life, political rallies and backcountry skiing. A sense of humor and irony permeate Chamberlain’s work, as does an appreciation of beauty in its many guises.”
Hunter S. Thompson would be proud. June 12-Sept. 29, free, Archive Building, 620 W. Bleeker St.