Chick Chalmers was a graduate in photography from the Polytechnic of Central London, specialising in documentary photography. In his final year studying he made a body of work on Orkney which was published as the book Life in the Orkney Islands in 1979 (to be reprinted a year later). In 1980 he was awarded a Scottish Arts Council grant as part of an exchange, to go to the States to photograph for three months, touring almost every state in an ancient VW camper van. He returned with a remarkable body of work which was exhibited at Stills gallery in 1982.
He began teaching at Napier University, Edinburgh, in 1979 and also taught at Stevenson College in the late Nineties.
In the opinion of friend and fellow photographer Robin Gillanders, 'the work that Chick did in the States especially was comparable with the very best within the genre of black and white street photography: akin to Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank. He was a photographer’s photographer with a finely tuned sense of form, a quick eye for the unusual and bizarre, and an empathy with humanity. His pictures are gentle, kind, and sometimes humorous. Some are so precisely composed that they look as if they had been set up… but Chick was a quiet and unobtrusive observer. He never constructed his pictures and always printed them uncropped.'
His favourite camera was small, unassuming and amateur-like: fixed lens, no flash, no frills, no pretensions, no threat (how like the man himself). But he was lightning fast and had eyes. Chick occasionally used to quote Gary Winogrand: “The pleasures of a good picture are … the pleasures of a good picture” (although Gillanders doesn’t think he totally believed it was that simple).
After his American series, Chick never made a substantial body of work again – he did do some lovely work in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh and later dabbled a little in setting up – loosely – pictures in the street, but they really weren’t so interesting, and he knew it.
In 1984 Chick had married Ally, and his focus shifted to his love for her and then bringing up a family. Gillanders used to nag him mercilessly for not doing more, and he would smile at him sheepishly over his desk at Napier and say that he was just too content and that he really didn’t feel the need any more.
Chick, as a photographer, a teacher and as a personality was content to sit in the shadow of others, more egotistical, ambitious and vocal than himself – but often not as astute. He was an excellent, solid, reliable colleague, whose technical knowledge was extensive and his skill at teaching documentary in particular, was intuitive and consistent. He was a major influence on many fine Scottish photojournalists, such as Adam Elder, Murdo McLeaod, and Sam Maynard.
Until 1998, Chick hadn’t had one day off sick in 18 years. He was a constant factor, always accessible to students, and ready to offer a patient and sympathetic ear. He was diagnosed with cancer at the end of April 1998, after which his only apparent concern had been for the welfare of Ally and his children, Iain and Claire, and that they should feel at ease and be properly provided for. Ally made the very brave decision from the start, to look after Chick at home. This turned out to be a wonderful decision. It allowed friends to contribute to looking after him, away from the sanitised climate of the hospital, where it’s hard not to feel impotent. The environment at home was remarkable for everyone who witnessed it. This family weren’t just coping bravely with a tragedy; they were unbelievably positive, frank and cheerful. Clearly the Chalmers are a family built on very firm foundations – and hugs. It made visiting very easy for those many people who did, and one left with a feeling of having been privileged to be welcomed into their home.
Chick is missed by the very many people whose lives he has touched and photography he has influenced.
Our main aim is to celebrate Chick's contributions to photography. We hope to make his body of work more accessible to the public, providing generations both new and old the opportunity to learn from it, be inspired and, above all, enjoy seeing the world though Chick's eyes – or lens – once more.