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photo-eye Gallery Tony Chirinos - The Beauty of the Uncommon Tool Delaney Hoffman
This week we're ecstatic to bring you work from Photographer's Showcase artist Tony Chirinos. The Beauty of the Uncommon Tool presents stunning, large-format still lifes of the otherworldly tools used in surgical operating rooms isolated from their queasy context. See what Tony has to say about his careerand learn about the extraordinary circumstances under which these images were made here!


Tony Chirinos, Volkmann Retractor, Sharp-pointed, 9x11.5", Edition of 9, $450

This week, we are thrilled to share an interview between Gallery Associate Delaney Hoffman and Tony Chirinos, Photographer's Showcase artist!

Tony Chirinos is an artist and educator based in Miami, Florida. His first monograph, The Precipice was published in 2021 by Gnomic Book in Portland, OR and is comprised of over a decade's worth of imagery made in  operating rooms and morgues around the country. photo-eye Gallery is thrilled to introduce one of three chapters from The Precipice as a full portfolio!

The Beauty of Uncommon Tools shares a name with a famous set of images from Walker Evans entitled The Beauty of the Common Tool. By isolating these strange instruments as formal objects, Chirinos helps us all to see the beauty of those things that help us stay alive. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Tony Chirinos, Volkmann Retractor, Sharp-pointed, 9x11.5", Edition of 9, $450

Delaney Hoffman (DH): So, all right, The Precipice, this new book project! It looks so good. I was so impressed when we got it in. I have a student edition on the way for myself, which I love. As somebody that's very committed to photobooks and photobook access. I love that you made a Student Edition.

Tony Chirinos (TC): Well, I told Jason from Gnomic [Books, Portland, OR] that it's very important to me that we do a Student Edition, because some students can’t afford a $50 book! But even then, every aspect of the book was thought of as some association with medicine. The Student Edition comes in a manila envelope, which is how you used to get your X-rays and reports when you went to the doctor; and even then, it's not a softcover, and it's not a hardcover. It's a no cover! It's loose! It's an extraction from the main book, so again, it's the idea of taking something out of a body and putting it somewhere else.

DH: That's cool. I like the idea of extraction a lot, and how that carries through down to the design elements. So can you tell me a little bit about your background as a photographer, how you came into the world of picture making?

TC:  How did I get into taking pictures? Well, as an art student, in ninth grade, I was really into drawing with pencil. And you know, sketchbook stuff, I wanted to be an artist. I would spend weeks if not months on just one drawing. My art teacher, who I dedicated the book to, Susan McGuire, told me at the end of ninth grade, she said, “Have you ever done photography? I think that you will love it because all of your drawings are, you know, pencil/charcoal. Right? And if you're into this black and white...” So I signed up for it. And the first role that I took, I said, “Oh my God! I can make 36 sketches of the world. And I don't have to spend months and months and months!”, because I think that's what I would do with my drawings. I wanted to make sketches of the world and document the things that I was seeing. So that's how I got into photography and I never went back to drawing.

DH: It's funny how sometimes all it takes is the right kind of assignment. You know, sometimes it just takes that person to say, “Oh, you've been doing this forever; what if you tried doing the exact opposite thing?” That can just be where so much creativity can spring from. It sounds like a lot of the way that your career has developed is through people that you've met; how did you get into the operating room to start making these pictures?

TC: So in 1984, right out of high school, I got a full ride to Miami Dade Community College, where I'm teaching right now. They gave me a bunch of money, but unfortunately, I wasn't prepared for higher education. So within the second semester, I lost my scholarship. I lost my stipend. I lost everything. After that, I looked at the classifieds section of The Miami Herald, and I just said “Okay, what can I do during the summer to make enough money so that I can pay for one semester?” And lo and behold, there was a job that sounded really interesting - an Assistant to a Biomedical Photographer, of the Department of Radiology at Miami Children's Hospital. I called the number even though my portfolio had nothing to do with medicine, nothing! I told my interviewer, the Director of Radiology, Dr. Donald Altman, “I may not have experience, but if you put me in front of anything, I will document it as accurately as possible.” And so I started learning! The most incredible experience that I've ever, ever had was when I went to the surgical room for the first time; I didn't know that all of your senses could be so exposed simultaneously. I went to photograph a 13 year old female scoliosis repair and my very first time in surgery kicked my rear end! 

DH: That's so wild, but you were assisting somebody at the time?

TC: No, no, at this time. They threw me right in! I mean, they had equipment. And I learned really quickly about ring flashes, and macro lenses, that kind of stuff.

Tony Chirinos, Abboject Injectors, 9x11.5", Edition of 9, $450

DH: Wow! Can you tell me how the role of photography (and your vision of the role of photography) developed from thinking about a roll of film as sketches at 14-15 years old, to a tool for helping you to understand and come to terms with mortality?

TC: Well, there's, there's a little bit in between there. When I wasin high school, I had a very difficult time reading and writing – I'm sure that if I'm diagnosed, I'm probably dyslexic – but for some reason, I always wanted to be a writer. Maybe because I was so bad at it, and I'm still bad at it! I found out that I could actually make pictures and sequence them in a way that actually could create stories for me. And that's when it clicked. That's when I said that's what I want to do - I want to create stories with my images.

DH: Definitely. The thing that I also really appreciate about the project as a whole is that it feels like there's so many references to photographic history. What kind of work were you looking at throughout the development of the imagery?

TC: Oh, I was looking at so much stuff! I found The work of Stanley B. Burns Archive through the photo-eye Bookstore; Burns has a book called A Morning's Work: Medical Photographs from the Burns Archive and Collection from 1843 to 1939. There are some images in there that are just beautiful. I mean, they're Rembrandt done with a camera! And I'm going, whoah! This is really powerful! I also researched Andres Serrano's morgue pictures, I looked at paintings and sculptures… Walker Evans’ series, The Beauty of The Common Tool was a big influence that you can see. I used to go to the Met a lot and look at work from around the world and took an interest in all things ethnographic. One of your questions is, which is the tool that I love the most? And so there's one…

DH: This is my favorite picture too!

Delaney and Tony chatting about their shared favorite picture, Hurd Dissector, Penfield #1

TC: Really? Cool! So some of the things happen when I was doing these tools. One of the things is that they started taking on qualities of other objects. So [Hurd Dissector, Penfield #1], for me looks very much like African sculptures I'd seen of male and female figures. And so those are the things that I was looking for, but the color was also another thing. I actually looked at the tool that was given to me and then I would consider it to be male or female. Depending on that, I would select the color that was going to be the background.

DH: Oh, interesting. So were the warmer colors gendered kind of feminine and the cooler ones more masculine?

TC: Absolutely. 

DH: And that was just from a formal art historical kind of, kind of view, it seems? 

TC: I love the formal quality of these tools that were being used at that time. You know, I had to set up everything for the first surgical case, which is at six in the morning! I had to be at work roughly around five to 5:30AM. The gentleman that was in charge of sterilizing these tools right before surgery, he would give me 30 minutes before he had to sterilize them for the doctors to use. I would run down to surgery, I would pick two or three tools, and within that 30 minute range, I had all of my equipment set up, the view camera was set up, I did the magic, and then I had to run back and give my friend the tools before surgery so that they could be sterilized! 

DH: Oh, totally, I didn't realize that these images were from 4x5 negatives! The tools look so sleek, they really come off as digital. I think in a world where we see so many people working with digital is kind of this still life thing.  

Tony Chirinos,Richard-Eastmann Retractor, 9x11.5", Edition of 9, $450

TC: Yeah! One of the things that I feel very fortunate about is that I could use some of the same tools and techniques that I learned to use as a medical photographer to create art. So these tools were laid on top of non-reflective glass, and then the glass was actually elevated anywhere between four to six inches away from the color paper. The reflection of the flash usually would be off the viewfinder. However, there are some images that have more reflection than other because without a reflection, without shadows, then there wouldn't be any three dimensionality. I just slightly brought it in. And so I was able to control it, like a movie director.

DH: Totally. And I mean, that's such a  basic lighting principle, right, the closer the farther away your subject is, from the backdrop, the less of a drop shadow, you're going to get behind that thing. How many tools did you end up shooting? I'm assuming there were many, many more images than what are available to see!

TC: Yeah, there are about 100 images from Beauty of the Uncommon Tool

DH: I'm just glad that it's kind of seeing the light of day in book form two. Yeah. What's been the general reaction? Do you think people get weird when you show them pictures about death?

TC: I mean, all of my work is about death and the vulnerability of life. Even the cockfights that photo-eye’s featured before, and the work that I'm doing now –  it's not entertainment! And it's a seven course meal, it's not fast food! If you don't want to invest the time with the work, then you're gonna' have an issue with it. If you do invest the time and really look at the work and read the tags and read the artist statement, I think that you'll know exactly where I'm coming from. I've gotten every reaction, but ultimately, the first chapter of The Precipice, is all about my religious background! The last chapter is all about me being a Catholic – the shroud, the sheets, the lighting, the ascension to Heaven, that body that's been lifted, that's floating in the air! The questions of what happens to our body and what's left behind when we're gone are important to the work. I'm very into that concept of photographs and the connection of memory. The things that get left behind are all in the photographs of our life. And that's what people remember. 

DH: Well, so what are you working on? Now? What's the current project now that this is out and published and in the world? 

TC: Well, I already made a book dummy of the Fighting Cocks series. I'm going to wait until this book gets really close to selling out so that I can start reaching out to publishers. Obviously it's going to be very controversial because of the subject matter, but if you look at the images, and you read the artist statement, you can see that this is not about the death of the roosters, this work is about being involved in a subculture. It's about the relationships of the male phallus with their extension to the other male, that is also being represented by a rooster. 

DH: Totally I love that actually. True. Yep. 

TC: So you know, it's all there! Now, I'm working with the same themes, death and vulnerability, but I'm using other imagery. Some of the new images are really layered. And some of them are tough to look at. I'm still interested in death in every aspect of it. The whole aspect of how the body stops and starts, you know, getting older...we visually can see death! As the years go on, we just don't want to accept it, our face starts getting wrinkled, and our joints start hurting. So I have been photographing the bodily surface of my mom's hands, she's in her 70s, and I photographed a friend's grandmother's hand, she's in her 80s. The hands have a lot to do with this project.

Tony Chirinos,Yankauer Suction Tube, 9x11.5", Edition of 9, $450

>> View The Beauty of the Uncommon Tool in its entirety here! << 

The Precipice by Tony Chirinos.

The Precipice is available as a book in a standard trade edition as well as a student edition through our Bookstore!

The Precipice is the summation of nearly two decades spent working as a biomedical photographer in Miami. Chirinos threads the needle between the sometimes delicate, often brutal world of surgical intervention. The book is separated into three main bodies: surgical photographs of living subjects; vibrant typologies of exquisitely photographed tools; and the journey to the afterlife. The Precipice draws back the curtain to a world which most of us never see, where human fragility and resilience coexist in an uneasy equilibrium.

• • • • • 

Print costs are current up to the time of posting and are subject to change.

Tony Chirinos is a Photographer's Showcase artist.

For more information, and to purchase prints by Tony Chirinos, please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly or Gallery Assistant Delaney Hoffman, or you may also call us at 505-988-5152 x202