The last time Jessica Racer saw her father, Jonathan Chapman, they were at her brother’s baseball game. It was Father’s Day. Beyond the field stood a school with a rather ugly, windowless brick wall. But Chapman nudged her to look at it — at the way the sun was casting the shadow of a tree. The shadow was perfect, Racer said.
“It’s the kind of thing I never would have noticed, but he was always noticing,” she said.
Chapman, a respected Twin Cities photographer and mentor, died June 18 by suicide at age 46. He is survived by his wife, Michelle Ramier, children Jessica, Wesley and Frankie, his brothers, Jeff and Daniel, his parents and a grandson.
Chapman’s eye for beauty didn’t just show up in his work, but in every aspect of his life, his family said. He made easy friends and had a knack for maintaining relationships, even after years apart. He was the rare person who could hold meticulously high standards but still be fun to be around, Ramier said.
“He expected a lot out of people, things people didn’t even know they were capable of until they did them,” she said. “But somehow he was also super fun.”
Always ready with a one-liner, Chapman would practically tell jokes in his sleep. “He’d roll over in the middle of the night and be awake for just a second,” Ramier said. “We’d exchange some words. Then in the morning I’d realize that I couldn’t believe he came up with whatever he had just said. He was so joyful.”
One line that Racer always loved came when she was young and the two were walking down a sidewalk together. Someone had spray-painted “the F word on the sidewalk. Without missing a beat he just said ‘Somebody stubbed their toe there,’ ” she said.
Chapman attended the University of Minnesota, where he learned and fell in love with photography.
He worked at the school newspaper and, after graduating, started his own commercial and freelance photography and cinematography business, where he worked for about 20 years. His work took him around the world, but he made sure to never be away from his family for too long.
Behind the camera, he would “make magic,” said Tanya Silver, a video and still photography producer who worked closely with Chapman for eight years.
“He just knew how to put everyone at ease, even though he had these really high standards,” Silver said. “He was like the teacher you really loved and were a little afraid of because you just didn’t want to disappoint him.”
For younger photographers and other freelancers, Chapman was a gracious mentor, guide and resource. He’d always have time for coffee or to walk someone through a problem, colleagues said. He loved to hire people and give them their first chance in the business, and was effusive with his praise and gratitude, Silver said.
“He had this goofy little smile, and he’d tell all these jokes,” she said. “Many of us in this industry, we wouldn’t be who we are today without that mentorship and kindness and generosity that Jonathan gave us.”
While on the job, Chapman couldn’t stop talking about his family, friends said. He was not a traditional man, but he built little traditions with each of his kids, Ramier said. He and Wes would go to a cabin in Ely every summer, and he’d take Frankie to a cabin in the North Shore every November. He’d set up sushi nights with Jessica.
“Once he did something once or twice, he wanted to do that thing with that person every year,” Ramier said.
His joy and generosity were infectious — shared by the hundreds of friends and colleagues who attended his services Wednesday, with some traveling from as far away as Australia. He was a truly happy man, Racer said.
“We have no doubt that he loved his life,” she said.