Born in San Francisco's Chinatown on April 30th, 1921, Benjamen Chinn was the ninth of twelve children.  He was introduced to photography at the age of ten by his older brother, John, who taught him how to develop and print photos.  Together the two assembled a darkroom in the basement of the family home.  Throughout his photographic career, Ben, an engineer by training, would become known for his skills in the darkroom.


During World War II, he served in the Pacific as an aerial and public relations photographer for the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Based at Hickam Field in Hawaii, Ben and a lone pilot flew reconnaissance missions in bombers that had been converted into unarmed camera planes.


After the war, Ben returned to San Francisco and was accepted into a new fine art photography program at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), now the San Francisco Art Institute.  In this program, Ansel Adams and Minor White groomed the next generation of fine art photographers in the “West Coast School of Photography.”  Lecturers included Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Lisette Model and Dorothea Lange.  The highlight of each year was a weeklong field trip to Weston's home in Carmel, where Weston would lead the students on walks through Point Lobos and give lectures on photography in his studio.  The close-knit circle of teachers and students would become life-long friends.  He was particularly close to Cunningham, and through the end of her life he would often bring dim sum to her house for their lunches together.


During this time Ben began photographing San Francisco’s Chinatown.  With a non-judgmental eye and a natural curiosity about people, Bennie made intimate portraits of everyday life in the post-war era.  His photos display an intuitive sense of form and movement and he credited his development to his CSFA painting instructors Dorr Bothwell and Richard Diebenkorn.  The photos, many of which were taken from his doorstep, create a unique portrait of Chinatown from an insider’s point of view.


Ben went on to Europe and photographed Parisian street life from 1950 to 1951 while studying sculpture from Alberto Giacometti at the Académie Julian.  He also took painting classes at Fernand Léger’s school, and geography and philosophy at the Sorbonne.  He also became friends with Léger and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Living in Paris without a darkroom for the first time, Ben developed the negatives of the photos he took, but he never printed or saw any of the images until after he returned to San Francisco.


Minor White exhibited some of Ben’s Paris photos at a show titled Perceptions at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1954.  White also used one of them for the cover of the second edition of Aperture magazine. At this time, Ben also assisted Wayne Miller and Dorothea Lange as part of the West Coast Selection Committee for Edward Steichen's Family of Man exhibition.


In 1953, Ben went to work for the U.S. Sixth Army Photo Lab in the Presidio of San Francisco.  He continued the photographic lineage when he met Paul Caponigro, then a twenty year-old enlisted man doing his military service at the lab.  Initially attracted by their mutual interest in classical music, Ben volunteered to train Caponigro in the technical aspects of negative and print making.  Caponigro would go on to become a substantial landscape art photographer.  Additionally, he introduced Caponigro to his teachers, now friends, from the CSFA: Adams, White, Lange and Cunningham.  Caponigro writes, “Through Ben, I felt that I had been admitted into a 'guild' of serious image makers using light and silver emulsions.  Ben's own talent and ability with the camera coupled with his willingness to reach out to another human being gave me a great start and the inspiration to extend myself to those searching to develop within the realm of great art.”


Ben had a thirty-one year career at the army photo lab where he rose to Chief of Photographic Services and later, Chief of Training Aids & Services Division.  Though he stopped pursuing photography as a fine art, his life and relationships as a photographer never ceased.  He continued to travel with his camera, photographing the Tarahumara Indians in Copper Canyon, Mexico, and the indigenous peoples of Teotitlán.


Throughout his life, Ben developed and maintained numerous life-long friendships.  He actively participated in social groups that shared his beliefs in religion, the arts, travel and the enjoyment of food and good company – spending hours discussing classical music, films and the books of the day.  He continued to photograph with a 35mm camera and shared his artistry through holiday cards and documentary photography support for Project Concern.


Even after retiring, Ben’s passion for photography continued.  For a number of years, he volunteered his time at a neighborhood photo store in Chinatown and spent his days developing customers’ photos on the one-hour machine.


Ben lived in the family house in Chinatown until February, 2008, when failing health necessitated a move to an assisted-living facility.  He died on April 25, 2009.

Ben Chinn photographed extensively during the 1940s and 1950s using both large format and a medium format Rolleiflex.  Many of these images have only recently been seen in public.

© 2020 Benjamen Chinn Photographic Archive.

All images used with permission