Things to Do in Miami: Tony Chirinos “The Precipice” at UM Art Gallery

Things to Do in Miami: Tony Chirinos “The Precipice” at UM Art Gallery

Tony Chirinos is used to seeing and capturing things that would shock the average person. He worked for years as a medical photographer for hospitals in the Miami area, taking photos of surgeries and autopsies, developing an oeuvre that contemplates the fragility of life and the finality of death. But he remembers a time when one viewer’s reaction to his work shocked him.

“I had a group show in New York,” Chirino recalls, “and I had this lady come up to me, a small, petite, older lady, and tell me that my pictures were the most horrible pictures she’d ever seen ever seen. And when I started looking at her, she had a number tattooed on her arm.”

The woman was a Holocaust survivor, and Chirinos’ photos reminded her of the concentration camp crematoriums she narrowly avoided.

The artist, now a professor at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus, says it is never his intention to offend anyone, but that the content of his photographs sometimes provokes extreme reactions. In the case of the elderly woman, he says he was saddened by her experience but grateful that his work provoked such an emotional response.

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Both the book and the exhibit are a summary of nearly two decades of work as a biomedical photographer in Miami.

Photo by Tony Chirinos

“I’m a documentary-style photographer. I don’t move anything; I don’t touch anything. I photograph what I see in my own style,” he says. “My main goal is to show people images and not give answers, so they look at a picture and there are more questions to be asked, [rather] than just giving the full answer of what it is.”

That’s exactly what Chirinos has planned for his upcoming solo exhibition, “The Precipice,” at the University of Miami Gallery in the Wynwood Building. Based on his eponymous first photography book, published by Portland, Oregon-based boutique photobook publisher Gnomic, “The Precipice” also replicates the book’s tripartite structure, placing photos from each chapter on the gallery’s three walls.

Each takes a different subject as their focus, from the monochromatic depictions of mortality in Farewell to the somewhat fetishistic photographs of surgical tools suspended against brightly colored backgrounds, titled The Beauty of the Uncommon Tool, after a Walker Evans photo project, ” Beauties of the Common Tool,” originally published in 1955.

“These are tools that have been used in surgery and photographed in a beautiful, ethnographic way. So I take [the tools] out of their context and make people think about them. What will it be used for? What part of the body is it used for? Why is it so beautiful? Why am I drawn to something so horrible? Why am I looking at it like it’s eye candy?” explained Chirinos.

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“I take [the tools] out of their context and make people think about them,” says the photographer.

Photo by Tony Chirinos

Chirinos found his calling after losing a scholarship to what was then Miami-Dade Community College, ironically where he now teaches. Not wanting to embarrass his parents, immigrants who escaped Cuba via Venezuela, he hid the setback and got a summer job as a photographer’s assistant at Miami Children’s Hospital. He earned a promotion two months later and became the hospital’s official photographer when his supervisor resigned. However, there was one big problem: He knew nothing about cameras.

“I found this organization called the Biological Photography Society,” he recalls. “And so, I reached out to them, told them what my predicament was, and they really helped me.”

The association gave him instructions on everything from photographing surgeries to which lenses to use. Although most of his work involved taking educational photos of medical procedures for teaching doctors, he also took portraits and family photos for staff, ribbon cutting ceremonies and anything else the hospital needed. He supplemented his salary with freelance work and his own projects to make ends meet.

The most interesting assignments, he says, involved operations and autopsies. This, Chirinos recalls, he took very seriously, especially when he returned to school at Florida International University, where professors encouraged him to think of his work as more than a job.

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The operating theater is a place where questions of life and death are asked.

Photo by Tony Chirinos

“You have to respect the HIPAA law,” he says. “What can I do to protect the patient and not lose my job? So, I talked to administration and public relations, and basically they gave me the green light, they just said, ‘Just make sure no identification is not shown’.”

Chirinos, acutely aware of the privacy risks his work could pose, became adept at photographing around the patient. He would take pictures of surgical tools, of lights, of sheets draped in various positions, and of doctors gathered around the table. Many of his shots are photographed in dramatic, clinical black and white, imbuing them with all the power and seriousness that comes with going under the knife. They may be more challenging for what they don’t show, which may explain the intense reactions.

“I love to let the viewer create their own horror in their head,” he admits.

Following the UM Gallery exhibit, “The Precipice” will travel to Brooklyn’s Transmitter Gallery in April. The show is Chirinos’ New York gallery debut and a peak of interest in his work, which he attributes to the COVID-19 pandemic. The photographer says he struggled to find a way to publish and show his work before the pandemic, but believes the event has made some people rethink their own relationship to death. Chirinos’ photographs provide a certain memento mori.

“We don’t know what fleeting relationships and feelings anyone is going to get from looking at these pictures. The only thing I’m trying to do is [tell people] that you have to look at your own mortality,” says Chirinos. “If there’s one thing we’re all going to do, it’s that we’re all going to die.”

– Douglas Markowitz,

Tony Chirinos: “The Precipice.” On view Friday, February 1 through Friday, February 24, at the University of Miami Art Gallery, 2750 NW Third Ave., Miami; 305-284-3161; Entry is free.

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