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The Tidings Reviews John Chiara's "Mississippi"

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The Otherworldly Photography of John Chiara
August 6, 2015
by Heather King

I first encountered the work of San Francisco-based photographer John Chiara at a current exhibition at the Getty: Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography.

Chiara’s cameras are old-school: a box with a lens. They’re also huge. He makes them himself and transports them on a custom-made flatbed trailer.

“Basically I have to find someplace I can roll up, parallel park and somehow get the camera in a position to take a photograph.”

He literally climbs inside the camera, which he affectionately describes as a “suffocation box.” "I’ve kind of made photography as labor intensive as I think it could be.” He usually manages but one photo a day.

He uses no light meter, no stopwatch, no film. The images, printed directly onto photographic paper, leave serendipitous traces of the process: striations, spots, tiny messages from afar that could be rogue birds, random UFOs or lost mosquitos that bumbled into the suffocation box.

He’s done series on the Bay Area, the Northern California Coast and Los Angeles.  

Recently, he spent a year traveling back and forth to Mississippi, absorbing its folklore, its people, its fields, streets, deltas.  

The result is a solo show — Mississippi — at Bergamot Station’s ROSEGALLERY through Sept. 5.

Chiara likes to frame views that aren’t necessarily “grand” or “picturesque.”  The photos, taken during 2013-2014, contain no antebellum plantations, no Spanish moss, no former lynching sites.

“I find myself photographing the way the light is hitting the inner branches of trees at a particular moment. Because I thought I saw history in there … I sensed meaning in its reflection of this place.”

The works in Mississippi are big: 30 to 53 inches wide, 28 to 53 inches tall.

The colors are pale mauve, milky sea green, mother of pearl, dove gray, saturated gold, incandescent sapphire, flashes of pure white light exploding from an “ordinary” stand of trees, a “humdrum” dirt road.  

The edges of the photos are irregular, meandering, as if cut by a child trying out scissors for the first time. Many bear the image of wide swaths of cellophane tape, tangled in places, the lovely transparencies darker when doubled, like the wings of dragonflies. And who knew you could get lost in the beauty of a pattern of trapped air bubbles?

There are no humans. Humans would be out of place. But humans hover mute just outside camera range; their presence sensed if not felt.

Martin Luther King at de Soto is all angles: a faded asphalt parking lot, a washed-out sky, a white wall with the outline of what may or may not be a human torso.

In Highway 1 at Friar’s Point, North, two (at least) exposures are overlain: the upper one paler, the lower, brighter one out of focus. Swaths of trees, partly shrouded in shadow, recede to wraith-like branches dissolving into the sky.

A diaphanous American flag in Sanderson at Corporation dissolves, goes up in smoke, topples into an amethyst sky. At bottom left levitates a small ghostly blue-green half-globe: a new planet? In the background flit tiny protoplasmic blobs of hot pink, jet-black sunspots, an electric-blue amoeba.

The sky-obsessed images in Mississippi somehow remind me of J.M.W. Turner’s broodingly majestic sea paintings.

Or maybe they’re more like mirrors.

What’s the big deal? you ask at first glance of Delta at 1st West. A washed-out, over-exposed photo of the kind of industrial urban landscape we’ve seen so much of we tend to subconsciously block it out: not beautiful, not noteworthy, not interesting. A no-man’s land — L.A. is full of them — in which stolen goods get fenced and cars get rebuilt.

Then you see the composition is weirdly arresting: the poignant geometry of a garden-variety grouping of telephone poles; a nimbus of otherworldly light settling gently, like a flying saucer, on an aluminum roof. This moment in time. This eye, this angle, this cosmos, this sun.  

Or as Chiara describes his work: “The blended character of memory in relation to specific moments or places.”

Standing before Old River Road at US 1, 2013, I wonder: Did I forget my glasses? Am I looking at a reflection of trees in a pond? Was this photo taken by God? A sense of vertigo, skewed perception, entering into or lifting off into another world.

Chiara’s photos evoke terror in the original sense of the word:  awe, fear and the urge to fall to our knees before what is unknowable.

In Old Levee at Burkee, 2014, a stubbly brown field with a stand of bare trees manages to spawn an air of clownish menace crossed with archangelic hope.

I’m not quite sure, if I entered those woods, whether I’d find a bloody crime scene, or Jesus, who would call me by name and give me the verdict on whether I’m to go with the sheep or the goats.  

Peter, James and John climbed Mount Tabor. But Chiara’s work reminds us that if we only have eyes to see, the whole world — every inch — is transfigured with tragicomic meaning and mystery.

John Chiara: 'Mississippi' is at the ROSEGALLERY through Sept. 5.
Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Avenue, G-5, Santa Monica, CA 90404
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 

Source: Courtesy of The Tidings

JOHN CHIARA : Coahoma County, Mississippi

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ROSEGALLERY is pleased to present John Chiara: Coahoma County, Mississippi, a special presentation of photographs produced by the artist along the Mississippi Delta during 2013/14.


There are worlds within worlds in Coahoma County writes artist John Chiara. It is a place with a strong oral tradition where the locals have a deep historical and cultural knowledge of the region. It is the birthplace of the Delta Blues. It is a landscape enlivened by a photographic collective memory, fed by nearly two centuries of photographers working their magic and being changed by the magic of the land in return. The artist continues:

“The sun radiates and creates an energy here like no other place. This is due to the water table being approximately ten feet below the large flat plain that is Coahoma County. This is an area that has consistently flooded over and over again for several thousand years, making it one of the most fertile regions of the world. The fertility, the heat, the humidity make this land want to be something it currently is not. You can see it in the way the Kudzu, like chainmail, drapes itself over old trees, and how the farmers now arm themselves with earth-altering, agricultural weaponry.”

Over the period of one year, San Francisco based artist John Chiara made numerous trips to Coahoma County, Mississippi, located in the town of Clarksdale. He put down temporary roots, ultimately spending several months, ten days at a time, immersed in the culture and getting to know the land. He studied the area throughout drastically different seasons, from the sweltering summer and its shocking greenery to the relatively dormant fall and winter months when the landscape is unnervingly exposed. He got to know the people and the folklore of the region and was deeply affected by the essence of nature in the area. One could say he communed with the spirits there.

“I find myself photographing the way the light is hitting the inner branches of trees at a particular moment. Because I thought I saw history in there…I sensed meaning in its reflection of this place.”

For Chiara in particular, visiting and exploring a region like Coahoma County with large format equipment is a task ripe with challenges. His cameras are hand-built, massive and cumbersome. They require a level of physical exertion to transport, maneuver and operate that is rarely attempted by contemporary photographers of the digital age. For the Coahoma County work Chiara utilized two different cameras to produce over 100 photographs at 34 x 28.25 inches and 50 x 53 inches. His process, which involves using ilfochrome paper, allows him to record an image directly onto the photographic material. The rich quality of the Mississippi earth with subtle notes of local history is rendered in exquisite detail by this uncommon practice. The resulting prints retain poetic traces of noise and residue from the photographic event and the final images are haunting, lush, and characterized by an exceptional luminosity consistent with the quality of light Chiara is intent on capturing.

John Chiara earned a B.F.A. in photography from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and an M.F.A. in photography from the California College of the arts in 2004. In 2011 the Pilara Foundation commissioned the artist’s Bridge Project for their permanent collection and it was included in the exhibition “HERE” at Pier 24 Photography. He has been included in group and solo exhibitions nationally and abroad. The artist will be featured in Light, Paper, Process, Reinventing Photography, opening at the Getty Museum on April 14, 2015 and his work is now part of their permanent collection.

John Chiara: Coahoma County, Mississippi will be on view at the Atmos Building, 121 Delta Avenue, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 38614. Reception for the artist will be held Friday, October 03, 2014 from 5:30 – 8:30 pm. The exhibit will be held just before the King Biscuit Festival in Helena Arkansas. Along with the art, Clarksdale will be awash in fine blues, jumping juke joints and excellent Delta cuisine. For more information please contact Isabelle Le Normand at