John Chiara’s one-of-a-kind mural-size camera obscura prints are luscious, moody and magical. He builds his own giant cameras (one which is large enough for him to climb inside) so he can expose light directly onto large sheets of photo-sensitive paper to capture images without needing film to act as an intermediate negative. His photos offer up ordinary urban landscapes that seem like three dimensional sculptures infused with light flares and liquid color. Somehow—through his mix of the direct process, hand-cut photo paper, filters and chemicals—everything looks real but “charged” with heightened energy.
Each of the unique prints is a collector’s dream, and a generous new book from Aperture and Pier 24 offers perfect reproductions with stunning production values. In the book, Chiara takes you on a road trip through his beloved California and drives home the “magic in the ordinary” everywhere he looks. The oversize book includes several fold-out spreads to accommodate essential diptychs, and two illuminating essays provide added appreciation for Chiara’s process and creative vision. This is definitely one of my favorite books of the year—a book that rewards repeated visits.
According to a recent article in The New York Times: “Virginia Heckert, a curator of photography at the Getty Museum, said photographers like Mr. Chiara were attracted to the idea of discovering the world through photography, rather than ‘just kind of encapsulating it.’ ” That’s a powerful statement that rings true, especially after talking with the artist himself.
I had the pleasure of talking with John Chiara when he was in Paris for a solo exhibition with Jackson Fine Art Gallery at Paris Photo in November 2017. Following is an edited version of our long, enthusiastic conversation.
LensCulture: Your work has captivated me since the day I first saw it exhibited at Pier 24 in San Francisco four years ago. Can you tell me about your background and your practice—what you’ve been doing, how long you’ve been doing it?
John Chiara: I’m from California. I’ve been photographing for most of my life, taking pictures. I started taking it really seriously when I was in college studying photography using a 4x5 camera and doing contact prints. That’s where I decided that I wanted to start shooting directly onto paper. I made this discovery in the ’90s.
Up until that time all the pictures I’d seen were enlargements. When I saw these little 4x5s and just how visceral they were, I decided I wanted to try to expand that, technically trying to pull that off by making larger equipment, larger cameras and finding the lenses to cover the focal length. And it’s been a journey, I guess. So, it started out as a technical pursuit, but then in there I found my work.
LC: What is it about the process—the 4x5 contacts and the direct transfer from lens to paper—that pleases you so much?
JC: Well, I think for one thing, it’s a slower process. And because it’s slower, you focus on photographing different things than if you were using a single lens reflex camera. But really, within that frame of the 4x5, everything felt like it was just so sharp and so tactile in a way. Each photograph felt much more like an object, and it felt like there was a whole world in there. I thought if I could create the equipment and expand on that and shoot directly into first generation pieces, that they would have this “life” to them. I think that’s been a theme throughout the last 20 years for me, trying to find that.
LC: They do feel like they are alive. They feel almost three-dimensional, like you can step into those worlds. But they also have, for me, a very surreal quality. There’s something there that is not the same as a regular photograph. I know you’ve been living with this process for a long time now. Can you say what it is that makes these one-of-a-kind direct objects different from a typical photograph?
JC: Well, one thing is I get the paper off of a roll of paper rather than buying it at a certain format. It doesn’t feel natural to me to have the picture be a rectangular format. It feels more natural for them to be almost fragments of a scene, because when I’m inside the camera what I see projected is larger than what I can capture with the paper. And I’m also not using a rangefinder to compose the images. So when I’m looking at the world and focusing what I want to photograph, I’m seeing a more expansive image. For me it feels more natural for the edges to not be straight and for them to be like a fragment of a larger image—so that gives some three-dimensional qualities to my pictures.
Also, I’m handling all this paper myself in these dark spaces and so, there are some imperfections in the handling. I feel like that’s part of the process. There’s tape that holds the paper that gets projected through, and various light leaks that can come from the top wall that can project down, and these are things that I embrace and try to control in a sense. Also, there’s chemistry with the development because I draw and process the prints by hand, so there are often some chemical stains or uneven development. All these things, I hope, create the sort of synthesis where it becomes more of an object. It’s also an image that you can go into, but there are various things that pull you back to the fact that it’s an object too. So, you go in and out from image to object.
LC: I like what you say about embracing some of the imperfections or the light leaks. The color seems almost like liquid to me too, rather than something with pixels or grain. Is it?
JC: I think that’s partially because of photographing directly onto the paper. There is no grain. Because there’s no enlargement from a negative, there is no grain. It’s one of the nice qualities of working directly on the material. And the paper is so glossy and saturated that I think it does have a liquid quality also. It’s highly reflective, which also brings you back to the fact that it’s an object, the reflective qualities of it. And I also embrace that.
I feel like in a way memory is something that you can never see perfectly clearly. You can see different parts very sharply. There’s a sharpness to it, but you never can see the full picture all the time. And also, I think memory has divergent edges and is sort of unbound in a sense. I hope that the work touches on memory in that sense—not necessarily nostalgia or a longing for the past—but more something that’s tied to reconciliation.
LC: Yes! It’s not quite like a dream image, but it does have this feeling like, “Oh. I’ve been here before, or, I’ve seen that.” It’s not in the present moment, but it feels like remembering something and then…some things are really sharp and other things are really kind of fuzzy and soft. Yeah.
JC: I’m really glad to hear that.
LC: Can you walk us through the process of making one image?
JC: Well, I tend to photograph over long periods of time in specific areas. And when I go out and work I don’t tend to drive forever and ever. I tend to decide what area I want to photograph in, and then just go search those areas. I just drive around or get out of my car. Sometimes I’ll just park and get out and look and just see, one, what I could take a photograph of, because of the limitations of the equipment, and parking and all these other limitations. And then, two, yeah, what strikes me.
A lot of times it’s almost like seeing something out of nothing. A lot of these things that I end up photographing are things that you just normally walk past and not really think “that’s a photograph.”
It takes time to find these pictures. Sometimes I think the limitations actually work in my favor, because I’ll stop and I’ll find a place where I want to take a picture, but it takes so long to set up and everything that I end up changing my mind and realizing, “Oh. I’ve got to do this.” I feel like I end up taking a picture that might have been the fifth or seventh or tenth picture I would have taken. You know what I mean?
JC: Because of the slow quality of it. And then, while I’m taking the picture I often augment what I was going to do as I’m doing it. So, I think the slowness of it creates this time for me to make decisions. I think, for me, that’s sort of what art is. Art is a succession of decisions that you can stand behind, that you have to stand behind. And it doesn’t matter if it’s fine art, but I feel like in general that’s where art lies. The decisions someone made where they couldn’t necessarily take back their decisions. That’s where I feel like things could become poetic.
LC: Can you describe the equipment you’re using and physically how you bring all the instruments, all the materials together?
JC: Well, I have two different cameras that I use. I use a camera obscura, where I must physically go inside to tack the paper up with tape in the back of the camera. It’s like a field camera. I have to assemble the camera on site when I’m going to take the picture. I focus it mathematically before I put the camera together.
After several different designs, what I finally went with is basically like a daguerreotype box camera, like the first daguerreotype camera where it’s two boxes that come and they separate from each other a little bit, but they have these light traps and that’s how you can focus. The paper goes on the back in a similar fashion to where daguerreotype metal multi-coated piece would go on the back, and the back does fall down in a similar way, that’s where I get in and out of the camera. That camera is towed around on a trailer.
LC: How big is that camera?
JC: When it’s put together that camera can be about 12 feet deep and about 12 feet in width and about 7 feet high.
LC: What size image would you make with that?
JC: The biggest I could go would be 50x80 inches, but I usually shoot 50x64 with it. Then, the other cameras I’ve built are on trailers or I put them in the back of a truck. They’re box cameras and they’re not camera obscuras necessarily, technically they’re not, but they have a process lens on the front and I have film backs for those cameras I’ve built, so I can load the film backs in advance. The film backs are very large, 40x50 inches. And I can load the film backs in the dark and they’re double-sided, and so with three film backs, potentially, I could go out and take six pictures in a day, whereas with a camera obscura I usually only take one, or—if I’m lucky—two pictures a day. But with this camera I can go out and potentially take more pictures, which is nice.
LC: You said it’s not technically a camera obscura. Can you tell me the difference?
JC: Well, I think of a camera obscura as where you’re on the inside of the camera checking the focus and seeing the projected image. Technically that’s what a camera obscura is, is where you’re on the inside studying the field of view that’s coming in from the outside. In the beginning, camera obscuras were used for drawing or painting, and for scientific purposes, then only later for photography. But with the box camera I don’t actually go inside of it, so I don’t think of it as the same. It’s more like a fixed focus large format camera.
LC: With that fixed focus large format camera, do you have a viewfinder? Do you know what’s in the frame? Or is that an estimate?
JC: It’s more of an estimate. I learn from each picture I take, so when I get the results I think back and I write down all the things I do during the exposure and the time of day, and I take careful notes. I learn from the process, and then when I go out I can use that knowledge. It creates a framework for my imagination to peer through and also helps my intuition of how to work intuitively. But I have a general sense of what’s going to be in the picture.
And also, I usually look at it from four perspectives before I take the picture. I look at it from behind. Then I go way back and look from way further behind. Then I kneel down and look at it from the center and see what angle it’s at. And then, I go to the front and look from there. So, I look at it from four perspectives usually, before I take the picture. So, I have a pretty good idea.
LC: Can you tell me, was there one image that you were making at the beginning where you said, “This is it. This is what I want to do.”? Can you talk about that?
JC: Yeah. There was a series of work I did in grad school where I was heavily experimenting with putting things on the paper to really affect your ability to see the image, so there was much more tape. I was spray painting on the paper in the dark, and then also spraying oil soap on before I’d go out and take the picture. Applying all kinds of tape to really disturb the image. And then, at the time, my mentors thought, “Wow, it doesn’t seem like it matters what you’re taking a picture of anymore. You have all this stuff going on and it’s almost completely obliterating the image.” But it was very much at that time like controlled chaos, and then I built this larger camera. And the idea was to go out and be more of a photographer and find these disruptions out in the landscape, but be more of a photographer.
At the time, what was really refreshing is I didn’t know how I was going to control the process with this larger camera, because I was just developing the technique. What ended up happening is the beginning of my sort of lack of control of the process ended up doing naturally all these things I was attempting to do with spray paint and oil soap and tape. It happened more naturally. And I took this one picture. The first one I took was barely there. It was of this area in San Francisco I photograph a lot on Potrero Hill, but it was just really hazy and milky and it was everything I wanted, but it happened naturally.
LC: Without too much intervention.
JC: Yeah. Without too much intervention. The process itself completed the work, and that was, for me, a big breakthrough.
LC: It looks like in terms of subject matter, I could kind of categorize your photos a few ways: sometimes pure abstraction, sometimes a landscape, sometimes more architectural. Does that breakdown make sense to you?
JC: Yeah. That makes sense to me. A lot of the times I feel like the architectural work is starting to get more abstract in a way.
LC: Also, you’re doing some multiple exposures too. Is that a new thing?
JC: It’s something I do every once in a while when I feel like it’s going to really add to the image. I usually do it when I want to express a sort of movement or what it feels like to be in a place, more than what encapsulates the place as far as an image, what it feels like. Then, I might do a double exposure…It’s more like I’m photographing in a place and I take this one picture, and then I realize, “Oh, there’s this other scene right here, and together it’ll create a situation that feels like what it’s like to be here.” Like spinning around in a forest or watching clouds move. Photographing clouds as they’re moving doesn’t really express what it feels like to watch that as much as maybe three different images of clouds from the same place from different angles might feel like what it’s like to watch the clouds moving.
LC: Yeah. Because if you kept the camera open for moving clouds, you’d get kind of smeared clouds.
JC: Yeah. You’d get smeared clouds.
LC: And you don’t do anything with figures, human figures. But I think there are some cows in some of the Mississippi work.
JC: I usually try to avoid having people in the images or animals, because then the images become about that and they’re not about what we were talking about, this idea of possible memory that you could personally own. Personally feel like you’ve had this experience, and this is reminiscent of something in your life or something that you’ve experienced. You can’t do that. You can’t take ownership of the images if they’re objective.
LC: It gets too specific with a figure there, maybe.
JC: Yeah. It’s what becomes objective rather than subjective, I feel like. It becomes about them, not about you.
LC: Can you talk about scale and how that works to accomplish different things for you?
JC: Well, I think scale helps you fall into the images. And also, the fact that they’re shot directly to that scale, so that they do have this sort of, hopefully, this visceral quality to them and a certain depth that’s not produced from an enlargement, it’s directly onto it. I feel like there’s something there where hopefully you can enter into it more easily.
LC: Just by being almost the same size as a human. Walking into it a little bit.
JC: No matter what format I use, I always try to keep it so that the lens is like a 50mm lens on SLR where it’s basically like your eye sees, and I think that really helps that happen, because it’s like how your eye witnesses the world roughly. I think that’s important too, that it’s not really wide angle or really telephoto. It’s pretty much how you see the world with your eyes.
LC: That probably helps with the idea of making a photo feel like a memory too. Can you talk about the color and the qualities of color? I know there’s light bouncing off something out in the world and coming to your paper, but it doesn’t look real. How do you do that? How do you make color like that?
JC: The color…The paper is Ilfochrome and it’s not made for daylight use. It’s not made to be exposed to daylight. It’s made to be exposed in a darkroom setting under a tungsten light bulb. Daylight temperature is different than what the paper is made for, so if you just expose it to daylight the whole picture would be violet and there’d be no differentiation of color. Everything would be a grade of violet.
Essentially, what I’ve learned is I have to do all the work in the camera that I’d normally do in a darkroom, with the filtration of color for the color of paper, and the dodging and burning. I have to do it when I’m out taking the picture. So, it’s kind of backwards. After, I just develop it and it’s done. There’s not much you can do in the development to change the color, other than develop it more slowly, which would cause chemical streaks and different changes of color. But mostly it’s done with the filtration when I’m taking the picture.
LC: So, it’s very much like a performance, each image.
JC: Yeah. I think of it as a photographic event, and what happened during the event gets documented in the picture. So, I think of the picture as part image, part object and part document of what happened during taking the picture. It all gets put in there.
LC: I think they’re so cool. I love what you’re doing and I really admire you for bringing us into your trippy world. Creating the performance, documenting the event, and then sharing it. Can you talk about the new book?
JC: Well, I’ve been working on a prototype for a book for a while, and I’m lucky that Aperture and Pier 24 helped me publish this book. It was an amazing experience. It’s my first book. I learned so much from working on it with them. They had a lot of really amazing ideas as far as the designer and Lesley Martin, the director who helped me work on the book.
We decided to end up with just the theme of California photographs and to make it more about that. It’s not necessarily a representation of the California landscape at all. But landscape at this point it’s kind of like a frame of mind anyway, so it’s more about that than it is about a topographical book of California. So, it’s work from the past 18 years I’ve done in California. And it just sort of meanders around the state, I feel like, more than anything.
LC: Having lived in San Francisco and Berkeley for 30 years, I really connect with it on a personal level too. It’s just really amazing. I remember seeing your work at Pier 24 and walking out of that show with my eyes freshly energized and looking up at the Bay Bridge. I’m never going to see that bridge the same way, because when you photographed it you made a very psychedelic version of the bridge, I think.
What’s next for you? Do you have something that you really want to do with these big cameras or something different?
JC: Well, one thing is I’m working still in Mississippi for the next year. I just had a show open at Haines where I did these oceanscapes where I started doing different things with the ocean. There’s photo realism and painting where painters are able to render the world in a very photographic way. But in photography I haven’t seen a lot of photo renderings of the world, necessarily in a really painterly way, that doesn’t feel cliché or doesn’t feel like a ripoff and a pain. But I’ve been doing these oceanscapes that feel very natural. They’re almost like stop motion. Turning a minute-and-30-second exposure into hundreds of exposures with my hand, creating the situation where the glare coming off the ocean flashes over and over into the lens and onto the back of the paper…To me it’s very like hallucinations or magical movements of the ocean. It feels very much like a dream to me. So, I’ve been working on that.
I think one thing about the process of developing my work is things happen very slowly, and things happen from the work I’m making, so it’s different than being like a project-based artist where I envision a direction I want to go in the future. More it comes out of the work, so it’s—
LC: More like your response to what is there?
JC: Response to what I’ve been capable of doing, to what I see out there and what I feel I can do with the camera, with the lens, with light, with the landscape. So, it comes out of that. I feel like the work is changing and is going in different directions, but it doesn’t come from a theoretical conceptual place more than it comes from making the work and responding to it. That’s where my ideas generate. That’s where my imagination gets its ground or gets grounded in. So, to ask what’s next…it’s hard to really say what’s next.
—John Chiara, interviewed by Jim Casper