Photo Books

John Chiara’s First Book Gathers His Custom-Camera Images of the California Landscape

December 6, 2017

By Conor Risch

John Chiara’s first book, recently published by Aperture and Pier 24 Photography, gathers work the photographer has made in California during the past 18 years. Each of Chiara’s photographs is unique, made using large cameras he built to expose photographic paper and reversal film, and capture the landscapes and architecture in front of his lens. Chiara mostly avoids the typical vistas one might conjure in picturing California and the areas surrounding Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he’s done the bulk of his work. He tells PDN he’s drawn to the “in-between places or these strange places in the landscape”—non-descript street corners; concrete roadways or structures that interrupt the natural landscape; unremarkable hills and ravines; a view of a neighborhood of row houses obscured by overgrown grass and an electricity pole. Yet there is something familiar in the muted colors, the blown-out light and the vintage feel of the soft focus, like an early home-movie film still.

Chiara’s images are evocative, as if we’re looking at a visual representation of the sensation of being in a place, and maybe that place is somewhere we’ve been before. Whether that visceral experience is uplifting or disturbing depends on the image and the viewer. There’s a hallucinatory quality to many of the images, especially those Chiara made with negative paper, reversing light and shadow and rendering his scene in varying shades of orange.

© Chris Gould

John Chiara next to his homemade camera obscura. © Chris Gould

Chiara started building cameras in pursuit of an image that was “as sharp as it could ever be,” he explains. He’d begun contact-printing his 4×5 and medium-format negatives as an undergraduate student at the University of Utah. All he’d seen to that point in museums and galleries were enlarged images. In his contact prints he saw “the visceral qualities of the image and the depth of the image,” so he built his own camera with an industrial camera lens that enabled him to get a 16×20-inch image. He landed a studio space at the Developing Environments artist cooperative in San Francisco. There, he took out his kitchen wall and turned the studio into a camera obscura, using the 16×20 camera “as a kind of focusing mechanism for this larger camera obscura.” It enabled him to create “large-scale macro shots” of objects in his studio. “I was trying to make the most saturated, perfect, sharpest images I could possibly physically make with this process,” he says.

After a while he moved beyond the highly technical studio photographs. As he had worked on his camera obscura images, he’d also created a wall-sized collage of personal photographs he’d made “for my life and for posterity,” and in that “very crude” work he recognized a path forward. He decided to build cameras that would allow him to photograph outside and produce “something that felt more chaotic and felt more psychological possibly, and had more to do with my idea of memory and photography.”

Chiara primarily works with two cameras, one that fits in the back of a truck and another that has to be hauled on a flatbed trailer. When he is working with the latter, Chiara or an assistant can actually climb inside the larger camera. Depending on the type of exposure, he might be in the camera giving instructions to an assistant about opening and closing the lens, or outside the camera controlling the exposure himself. The size of his cameras has imposed limitations on where he can work. He also imposes his own limits. “I usually pick one area of a five-mile radius to work in when I go someplace new,” he explains. “The limitations are really helpful,” he adds, noting that they enable him to “really search and mine a place and find things that you would normally just walk past.”

© John Chiara

“Topanga Canyon Boulevard at Pacific Coast Highway, Los Angeles,” 2012 from John Chiara’s book California. © John Chiara

In her essay in the book, J. Paul Getty Museum photography curator Virginia Heckert notes that Chiara’s process is akin to those of photography’s inventors, “the scientists, artists, and gentlemen of leisure of mid-nineteenth-century Europe who embraced experimentation and discovery, trial and error as the means by which to explore and understand the essential qualities and capabilities of the new medium.”

People think his is a complicated process, Chiara says, because “so much work goes into making these [photographs] and building and maintaining the equipment. But there is a directness to working this way that I really enjoy,” he explains. People have suggested ways to make the process simpler, by creating ground glass for the backs of his cameras or some kind of viewfinder system, but, he says, “I feel it’s better just to develop an intuition and a sense of what you’re capable of doing with this equipment.”

The rough edges of the hand-cut paper hint at Chiara’s methods and are a record of what he considers a “photographic event.” But for him, it’s “not important” that the viewer knows about the process, he says. “I personally don’t want to fetishize the photographic process so much.” He likes showing the pictures near where he made them, and seeing how people react to images of places that may be familiar to them. His image titles are the names of cross streets near where the pictures were made, so “the person can navigate in their mind to where it is if they’ve been there,” he says.

While knowledge of the process isn’t essential to the viewer’s experience, the nature of each image being a unique “photographic event” does imbue them with a certain energy. Chiara says that any attempts he’s made to repeat an image have been fruitless. “If I got something I felt was right and felt like it was done, if I’ve tried to go back and do it again, it’s never satisfying and it seems like it takes the life out of it.”

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