DIY Camera: John Chiara’s Giant Camera Obscura

February 6, 2012

By David Walker

© John Chiara

John Chiara with his 50 x 80 camera on a trailer. To compose an image, he has to climb inside of it. To see images taken with his homemade cameras, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Crafting a unique image can require a photographer to think beyond the mass-produced tools of the photographic industry. In our DIY Issue we interviewed three photographers who built their own cameras in order to achieve the photographs they envisioned.  

For San Francisco photographer John Chiara, the process of making landscape photographs inside a homemade, U-Haul-size camera obscura that he tows behind his SUV is part and parcel to the images themselves.

“The process I have developed comes out of a desire to make a certain type of image/object that you can’t make through traditional photographic processes,” he says. The huge, unwieldy camera makes the act of taking a picture an event in itself, and the image, he says, is the memory of the event.

The camera is constructed of wood and insulation foam, and mounted on a flatbed trailer. Inspired by the work of Carleton Watkins, Lewis Baltz, Henry Wessel and others, Chiara primarily photographs landscapes around the Bay Area. He makes the images directly on chromogenic paper rather than on film.

“Basically [the camera] gets ratcheted together in the field,” Chiara says. “You have to focus it mathematically, bolt the lens on, then you climb inside and check the focus and image, adhere the paper to the back of the camera, take the picture, take down the paper, put it in a lightproof roll, then take the camera back apart for transport.”

He crawls in and out of his camera through a lightproof plastic sleeve, and exposes the photographic paper by removing the lens cap. “While I am exposing the paper I am also dodging and burning and making adjustments to the color filtration.” The prints are so large that he uses a long section of plastic sewer pipe to process them.

“In the end it functions exactly like an early daguerreotype camera. I didn’t plan that, but that is the camera design that works best for what I am doing.”

Chiara built the camera in 2003. He says the challenges of making it functional are “too many to list.” The somewhat flimsy construction materials he used to build the camera made it easier for him to make design modifications, but they also require frequent repairs and adjustments.

Chiara says he uses “precision barrel lenses,” but it took a long time to find and modify them. “Usually lenses are symmetrical with the aperture in the center. I have taken mine apart, putting an element behind with the aperture in front, to create a traditional meniscus landscape lens.”

It isn’t Chiara’s first DIY camera. Fifteen years ago he started experimenting with a Linhof 4 x 5, exposing chromogenic paper directly. He liked the results so he constructed a 16 x 20 camera, which he used to make large, macro images of objects in his studio. Eventually, he says, “I felt the work was getting too heavy on precision, technique and effect.”

So he built a 40 x 50 camera “the size of a large armoire” that was on wheels, and fit in the back of his truck. “The equipment physically forced the process beyond my ability to control it completely,” Chiara says. “Like a psychological event, the outcome can never be fully known for sure. I have to use a lot of intuition in making the work.”

With the 40 x 50 camera, he was also adding elements—tape, oil soap and spray paint—to the paper before making the exposures. “I was looking to find a controlled chaos in the work,” he says, but he was eventually able to pre-visualize the results too well. He felt he had “too much technical control” and that the work “started to develop a narrative I did not want.”

So he built the 50 x 80 camera that he uses currently, and explains, “I have taken my hand out of it and am executing the work more in the role of a traditional photographer.” When he makes an image, generally speaking he knows what the result will be, but it isn’t entirely controlled. “I let the process complete the work,” he says.

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