Tony Chirinos has been making pictures of death for the past two decades. In his series Requiescat in Pace, grim light illuminates corpses in a morgue with a charge that is both scientific and poetic. In Beauty of the Uncommon Tool, Chirinos photographs scalpels and other surgical tools on hyper-saturated pastel backgrounds to appear almost floating in space. Divorced from their association with the operating table, they hang like musical notes or anthropological ephemera, which Chirinos acknowledges are an homage to Karl Blossfeldt's early twentieth century typologies of plants and flowers. In yet another series, Surgical Theater, Chirinos approaches the operating room as a stage of decisive moments. Like Garry Winogrand's classic photograph The Ladies on the Bench, or Larry Fink's series Social Graces, the surgeons' gestures are ripe with narrative.
Noticing a common thread between each of these series, Chirinos recently combined and re-edited them into a comprehensive collection of work titled The Marvelous Body. "Sometimes you create work with an intention, but later it changes with a different collective narrative," says Chirinos, acknowledging the combined series' ability to explore different angles of mortality. I spoke with Tony to learn more about his relationship to photography, fragility and death.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: You were trained as a medical photographer. Do you see that having an influence on how you "see" in your personal projects/ specifically this new edit of work?
Tony Chirinos: Let me start by saying that I was attending Miami Dade community college studying Arts while directing the Bio-medical photography department at Baptist Hospital. I have always merged art with medicine/science but obviously, I was not the first, Leonardo da Vinci’s many anatomical drawings, Rembrandt’s (Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’s anatomy lesson), Hieronymus Bosch’s (The Extraction of the Stone of Madness) and Thomas Eakins’s (The gross clinic) are but a few who documented the events that they experienced. Technical superiority has always been required as a medical photographer and that has filtered into all my work. I guess I approach my subject matter always thinking about my viewer’s understanding on the meaning of my photograph without caption. At least that’s my first intent. Also, being able to use all aspect of the camera and what they specifically control becomes part of the visual language, the more tools I have to express myself, the clearer I can become.
The reason for combining, what I thought as different series into The Marvelous Body is that the visual narrative makes sense. The images combined tell a story about the fragility of the body and how memory, usually photographed is what’s left after death.
Jon Feinstein: I'm intrigued by title "The Marvelous Body."
Tony Chirinos: Once you realize how many times a single human egg must divide to make 2 trillion cells and all the possibilities that can occur for something wrong to happen then you can see how truly marvelous our body is. Also, what’s occurring now in the way I am looking at these medical series could not have happened without the experience of fatherhood. Paying attention to the physical and mental growth of my kids have blown me away. I want to thank Chloe and Beckett for allowing me to experience their growth.
Feinstein: How did your work in hospitals and morgues begin?
It began the very first moment that I went into a surgical suite to photograph a 13-year-old female undergoing corrective scoliosis surgery. During this surgery, I had the experience of a life time were all my senses, sight, smell, sound, touch and yes even taste were affected at the same time. How can I ever make an image that can evoke the same visceral sensation? Still working visually to answer this question. Eventually, I acquired permission to photograph for myself and not my job in every department of a hospital including the morgue. Little by little I started photographing different series, such as, The Surgical Theater series, The Beauty of the Uncommon Tool, Requiescat in Pace, Stiff and some others. Again, what’s happening now is that I am combining all of them creating the Marvelous Body in a way that creates a visual narrative that makes more sense to the viewer.
Feinstein: Do you see a conversation between the work in this series and your earlier work?
Chirinos: Yes, it’s like being in a past situation (10 or 20 years ago) at my current age of 50. I have more to appreciate now and less time to do it in, if that makes sense..
Feinstein: There's one particular image that grabs me even more than the others -- the image of the body, wrapped in a body bag, hanging delicately in a morgue. We included it in Humble's On Beauty exhibition, and I've seen a few other online photography publications like Fraction drawn to it as well. What's the story behind it?
Chirinos: It’s funny to me that most people that have encounter this image wants to know more about the meaning behind the photograph rather than the meaning of the photograph. So, the meaning of the photograph comes from my exploration of growing up Catholic, the white (purity) sheet covering the body that is either coming down from the cross that was carried its’ entire life or the body ascending into heaven. The space is visually peaceful and cold as we the viewer are to judge the end of life. The story behind this photograph will ruin the strength that this image evokes, I hope that this image stays in your head for ever and that’s my intent with all my work.
Feinstein: Masculinity seems to be a major thread in a number of your series, mainly Cocks, Renaissance Men, Where Men Gather, etc. Do you see it playing a part in this new work as well?
Chirinos: I have never seen them as having a masculinity thread but I can understand why you would say that. The reason why I created these series was to recreate stories my dad told me as a child. My father was a story teller never a reader and many stories were overly elaborate with unreal facts, at least on how I remember them as a child. Just like in the movie Big Fish director Tim Burton creates a movie of a son who believes that his father exaggerates his life story. At the end when his father past away his son can see all the friends in his father’s stories coming to the funeral making his son a believer.
My father’s elaborated stories where all true and making images that reflect bits of those stories is very rewarding to me. I have been able to create an alter about who my father was with my images.
Feinstein: What draws you to death and expiration?
Chirinos: I really don’t know why there are so few people interested in death, it’s palpable but you just don’t know when the end is going to happen. We die little by little every day which is a subject matter not talked about in our society, on the contrary, we live in a society where PLASTIC surgery if the fountain of youth. I have always wonder what kind of society we would be if we all knew the date that we would expire. That brings me to my most recent project Expiration, a collaborated portrait series in which the sitter must think of the month, day and year he or she will expire. As you can imagine, the topic of death scares away most people that I approach. I envision an installation piece creating a mausoleum where people can come to give respect to the living. Live in peace sounds better then rest in peace.
Feinstein: Like many of your other series, the psychological quality of light in this work is bold, direct, scientific in some ways.
Chirinos: Sure, sounds creates moods in a movie. Imagine the movie Jaws without sound, boring, Light and the result of light, such as shadows creates mood in a photograph, so to make the viewer respond to my photographs I must be the viewer. Also, like a magician I try not to spell it all out. Visual foreplay is my opinion.
Feinstein: Outside of photography, what's on your mind right now? Is there anything in particular that you looking at, listening to, reading etc that is on your mind when making work?
Chirinos: I love cooking, I have been making cheese cakes using tropical fruits like Guava, Tamarindo, Parchita with some success. I also love to read during the summer when I am away from teaching so I get to read books that are not about photography. Right now, I am reading In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Sensemaking, The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm by Christian Madsbjerg. I have also been writing a memoir about my time as a bio-medical photographer. Lately, every morning with my kids we are looking at a series by Guillermo del Toro entitled Trollhunters, lots of fun.
For me life is photography and photography is life. Currently, most of my time is devoted to making book dummies. I am working on the Cocks book, sequencing, writing and reaching out to people that I admire to collaborate with an introduction.
Bio: Tony Chirinos received a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University in New York. Trained as a Bio-medical photographer in 1985 at Miami Children’s Hospital, later in 1989 Mr. Chirinos created the Medical photography department at Baptist Health Systems in which he worked as the Director until his departure in 2001. Mr. Chirinos is a Fellow of the South Florida Cultural Consortium. His work has been widely exhibited, and collected by Indie Photobook Library - Washington DC, Candela Collection - Candela Books + Gallery, Richmond Virginia, CPW – The Center of Photography at Woodstock, Woodstock, New York; Light Work, Syracuse, New York; Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle, Washington; Enfoco, New York, New York, Cuban American Phototheque Foundation, Miami Florida and Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York. Mr. Chirinos is currently an Associate Senior Professor at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus in Miami Florida, he has been teaching photography since 2003.