John Chiara is a 36-year-old artist from San Francisco who photographs with a camera the size of a speedboat that he built himself and hauls around town on a trailer to photograph the city’s hillsides and houses and underbrush. He never shoots the big, important view, and though his camera is big, it isn’t grand. He has to climb in and out of it though a tube, and he develops the one-of-a-kind images in a piece of PVC sewer pipe. It’s a wild project—totally impractical and one that shows a great care and tenderness for the world around us.
Chiara’s process produces giant, shiny prints that are battered and unevenly exposed—an appearance that gives you the sense of an artist wrestling a thing into being. I learned of Chiara in 2006 through his work at Crown Point Press, where he made photogravures that are physically well behaved compared to his direct photo work but no less magical for being smaller and flat. His work does not depend on the novelty of its process.
At a recent artist talk, Chiara was asked if he would consider showing the camera alongside the prints. He said no, he thought that was beside the point. (“If I see a sculpture, I can understand the work that went into it but I don’t need see the foundry,” he told me recently.) This is a significant position to take at a time when so many artists have elaborate processes that take a long time to explain and involve an array of different types of media. Despite his unusual equipment, Chiara wants his photographs to be about more than how they were made.
Chiara’s process delivers an imperfect image. There are ghost-like intrusions caused by the artist’s hand or body getting between the light and the paper. You can see the tape on the sides. They are vulnerable to chance. Still, they are not intentionally messy. They are this way because his giant camera and its unwieldy burdens access an image in a way that the artist finds emotionally accurate.
I met Chiara in March on a day when Barack Obama came to Oakland. The 10,000 people who converged downtown made traffic impossible, so we skipped his show at the Oakland Art Gallery and went to see other work of his on display at Club Sportiva in San Francisco, a showroom that loans out high-end foreign sports cars.
Surrounded by vintage Porsches and Lamborghinis, the scruffy 4-by-5-foot Cibachrome prints of trees overlooking water and brushy hillsides with distant views of San Francisco looked more than slightly incongruous. One of the photographs is dark green, with a matching forest green Jaguar convertible parked at a jaunty angle in front. Chiara, who is represented by Eleanor Harwood Gallery in San Francisco, typically shows in more traditional venues. Still, there were big skylights here, and the work looked pretty happy on the white concrete walls, hanging in the wooden box frames Chiara makes himself.
KB: When did you build the big camera?
JC: I built it in the beginning of 2003 to 2004. It took approximately a year. It went through a bunch of different stages of design—I designed it so there were all these wheels and it would go into the back of a truck, and it was really beautiful, but there was no way to actually get it in the back of a truck. It failed in a lot of different ways. Then I put it on a smaller trailer, and it was way too big. Finally I built it again and put it on a bigger trailer. It ended up being almost exactly like the early daguerreotype camera. It ended up being an extended version of that. The difference is this camera goes straight onto a positive paper, whereas the daguerreotype goes onto a negative that’s on a mirror.
KB: But this is yours, it’s not a vintage camera. Is that important to you? You wouldn’t want to work with an old camera?
JC: The process comes out of a desire to make a certain type of image/object that you can’t make through traditional photography processes. What I was thinking about making couldn’t be made through those processes. The camera comes out of desire to make something that doesn’t belong.
KB: What does tradition mean to you? Do you look directly to other/dead photographers, and feel like you’re answering their problems?
JC: In a way I’m extending the tradition, but I’m also sort of not. Of course I’m really interested in the history of photography, really passionate about it. I feel like I’m extending but also sort of abandoning their ideals of what the best type of photography is. I’m just trying to make something that feels really good to me. .
KB: How do you pick your spots?
JC: I don’t think I’m nostalgic, but I grew up on a hill like this, outside of Walnut Creek [a suburb east of San Francisco]. It’s like the view I had coming home from school. I keep being drawn to photograph similar things.
KB: You’ve said you want people to daydream when they’re looking at your photographs, but not fairyland daydreaming?
JC: I hope they touch on memory—not a longing type of memory. I hope they touch on a visual memory, a personal narrative, a memory of place. I hope they extend the tradition of landscape photography.
KB: You’ve staked out these non-special views. That seems like your best weapon. They’re not big vistas, important vistas.
JC: Right now, yeah, that’s what I’m working with right now. It’s not that they’re troubled, but, yeah, they’re not like places where you’re gonna hang out and enjoy the view usually.
After we leave the showroom Chiara takes me down to the dock to show me where he parks the camera. The camera is the size of a medium U-Haul trailer, covered with a tarp and secured with a fishing net.
Having this camera really is like owning a boat. And the view here is great—there’s a deck made of unattached grey planks looking out on rotting pier posts that jut out of the water. Chiara pays his rent on the parking space and chats with his landlord for a minute. The landlord gives him some plastic pots for his roof garden, where he wants to grow fennel.
Chiara has wide, softish face with crinkly eyes. He’s dressed carefully in blue Marc Jacobs sunglasses, brand-new black canvas sneakers with a pot-leaf design, and a black windbreaker. He has a wispy haircut with lots of little tails, stiff posture, and a big smile. He picks a fennel frond from the driveway and chews on it.
KB: So how does the camera work? What all do you have to do to take a photograph?
JC: I take the tarps off the camera, hitch it up to the truck take it to where I’m going to photograph. It’s set up for driving, so I take this section off of it that’s strapped on with ratchets, and there’s stuff inside the camera I have to take out. It’s like a field camera—it all comes in different pieces, so then I have to put it together. I ratchet it all together.
I have this tube that comes out the side. The back opens up and I climb in, check the focus, climb out, close the lens, go back in, and put the paper up. I come out the tube, because it’s like a trap door, then I open up the front. I usually dodge the sky out so it comes out kind of even. Then I go back in through the tube, take the paper down, and put it back in its lightproof container. I come out the back, take the camera apart, put it together for the trip back, take it back to the boatyard, put the tarp back on, and ratchet it down (laughs).
KB: So this is like a half day.
JC: Starting three hours before the picture, and maybe an hour-and-a-half after the picture. [Chiara explains later that the photographs are processed using a basic drum processing technique. He takes an 18-inch diameter piece of PVC sewer pipe about 4 feet long and caps it. He pours the chemistry in with a green plastic watering can and rolls the tube back and forth on the floor to agitate.]
KB: What was working with Crown Point like? What was it like to work smaller?
JC: It was great. I wanted to really go for it. Because they aren’t used to doing large photogravures, or they haven’t done any, so automatically I just wanted to push it. Not necessarily because it’s bigger, but more because they’re master printers. I wanted to take it beyond their ability to control it.
One thing that was totally opposite of the way I work—usually I just previsualize and photograph and develop it and then it’s done. With Crown Point, it’s the opposite. You do the negatives and then you hand it over and then they make the plates, and then you do this really long proofing process. That was interesting to get what I had in my mind to translate through color. So I felt like I learned a lot about color—how it reads and how I want my work to read and trying to pin down what my real interests are what I’m really going for. That’s what I’m always trying to do—go for the gut of what I’m trying to do.
KB: Do you think the concentrated workshop experience helps you nail it down in this specific period of time?
JC: At first I was really kind of freaked out by working there, you know, working with them, because that place is just beautiful. I mean even the rust and all the ugly parts are the most beautiful parts, and then everybody’s really smart, and it’s quiet and everybody’s just working away. It was kind of intense at first, to work there. It took a while for me to get comfortable, working in that environment. But it was great.
Because the [gravure] process is an alternative process, associated with work from the turn of the century, it almost reads as nostalgic. Especially if you’re doing landscape.
KB: Do you think the color helps with that, making it not nostalgic?
JC: When the images came back and we ran them through the gravure process, they were kind of like almost mystical. That was surprising, I guess. There was a spot on the photograph where Dena [Schuckit, master printer at Crown Point Press] was saying it looked like a fairy could be flying out. It was like this black splotch that’s on one of the prints. It’s from sweat from my elbow, and I remember doing it.
KB: It was decidedly not mystical.
JC: Yeah, it was not supposed to be that way. It was surprising that it got read like that. In the end, through the editing that it got read like that. In the end, through the editing process of color, I tried to strip away stuff like that. Toward the end in the prints we’d still have like bright blue but we were trying to get more muddy. I tried to strip away any nostalgic color. I wanted it to look old and new at the same time.
Chiara lives in an artist live-work space in Potrero Hill with a giant, lacquered-wood developing bath by the door. He has a huge black-and-white cat with long cheek fur named Jerry. The space has a raised sitting room up some steps with ancient, romantic upholstered furniture and cat grass growing in a little pot on the coffee table. His kitchen is clean, with no dishes in the sink. (Are all photographers tidy people?)
KB: Do you think about scientific method? How ceremonial about your process are you?
JC: There is a technical side of me that’s kind of alignment with science in a way, A lot of art is an experiment. Science experiments have to have all these parameters around them in order to be revealing. I’m interested in an experiment that has parameters—not the rules of photography, but the ones that I’ve decided on, rules that includes the failure of the process. So there’s a noise in the process that I think is revealing and meaningful that’s like the failure of memory. I’ve tried to set up a physical process that mimics a psychological process. I’ve got my hands in it, I’m doing it, but I hope there’s a part of the process that naturally fails.
KB: It’s more lifelike.
KB: Have you read “The Birthmark” by Hawthorne? It’s one of the first mad scientist stories, about the danger of perfection. This scientist is in love with a beautiful woman who has a birthmark. He’s obsessed with getting rid of it and of course he kills her doing it.
JC: I think there’s a beauty in imperfections, for sure. I probably personally really enjoy sort of a strange beauty, or the beauty of imperfections. I grew up with a tumor hanging off of my chin, I’ve had plastic surgery. So I grew up being looked at a certain way.
KB: Oh! That’s really interesting. It was a benign tumor?
JC: Yeah, but it was a tumor. It had this crazy texture, it was like pink. I had surgery right here [points at his chin].
KB: That’s very good surgery.
JC: I was lucky. I had to wait till I was 15 to get the surgery. Otherwise it would have been a massive scar. The tumor stayed the same size. When I was a baby, it was huge. I don’t have a picture, but as I got older it kept getting a little smaller.
KB: Were kids mean to you? Did they try to be polite?
JC: Anybody I’d meet from when I was really little to 15, it’d take them two weeks to get over it. Every time I’d talk to them they’d just stare at it. And then eventually they’d get to know me and just get over it. It’s just one of those things. I feel like my camera’s sort of like that—people see it and it doesn’t belong there so it kind of acts like a tumor, in a way—it’s just a really dramatic imperfection.
KB: So you were able to find people that would stick by you.
JC: Oh yeah I had friends, totally. When you’re born with something like that, your personality is totally built around it, so there were only a few times that I got really upset or depressed about it. It’s not like you grew up normal and something happened to you. I was really outgoing, just on it, and when I got it removed, I felt like I got all shy.
KB: Some people I’ve met with a physical deformity have this kind of radiance, this glow that makes it easier for people to talk to them. Did you lose that or do you feel like you can get it back sometimes?
JC: When I got it removed it was like I got my arm removed. The way other people looked at me changed so dramatically I felt like I lost something more than a tumor.
KB: Artists have a hard enough time being thought of as different.
JC: Yeah, I don’t really worry at all what people think about me. I was pretty tough when I was a kid. My mom protected me, and mostly I remember the reconciliation after someone would say something mean to me, but not the thing itself. Sometimes I wonder, did I build this camera just to attract these situations again?