Since receiving his first camera at the age of nine, photography has been Chiara’s means of understanding the world, and his unique method uncovers hidden facets of familiar urban spaces by making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Exploiting the chance events of chemistry, using stripped-down components and extended time (as much as 30 minutes per exposure), and manipulating from within to cause scarring and degrading and aberrations of color and temperature, Chiara finds a kind of rapture in the very DNA of the photographic medium.
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From its beginnings in experimentation by mid-19th century scientists and gentlemen of leisure, photography has been shaped by the desire to understand and explore the medium’s essential materials. Taking that spirit of invention and discovery as its point of departure, this exhibition features the work of seven artists—Matthew Brandt, Marco Breuer, John Chiara, Chris McCaw, Lisa Oppenheim, Alison Rossiter, and James Welling—who focus their investigations on the light sensitivity and chemical processing of photographic papers, challenging us to see the medium anew.
The exhibition also includes an overview of experimental practices during the twentieth century, drawn from the Getty Museum’s collection. The works on view in Light, Paper, Process provide a glimpse into the continued interrogation and reinvention of the medium of photography by artists working today. ~via The Getty
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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.
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
The light leaks, sun flares, blurs and skewed chromatics in John Chiara’s photographs go to show that several technical wrongs can make an expressive right. One of seven artists in the Getty’s remarkable exhibition Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, Chiara redefines conventional picture-making means to serve evocative, personal ends.
Based in San Francisco, he uses large cameras that he constructs himself, taping sheets of color photographic paper inside to make unique, direct positives. Translucent traces of the tape appear along the edges of most of his pictures, and the chemicals used in developing streak and slur across the surfaces. Many of the prints have irregular, asymmetrical shapes.
At ROSEGALLERY, Chiara presents a series of introspective landscapes made along the Mississippi Delta over an 18month period in 2013-14. He shoots the sky, often straight into the sun, in flagrantly deskilled echoes of Stieglitz’s “Equivalents.” He frames a nondescript thicket of leafless, auburn trees, the branches smudged against metallic blue. He isolates a flagpole against violet sky, the banner little but a faint ocher blur.
Chiara’s work amounts to a kind of poetry of place, a private diary of resonant impressions.
The images tend to be self-consciously understated, but as a group they build some emotional momentum. His scrappy process, at once reverent of photography’s essential mysteries and defiant of its rules, is perhaps the work’s most appealing aspect of all.
by Michael Kurcfeld
Most people think of the photographer’s job as going into the world and documenting the “truth” of what they find before them. Even portrait photographers and studio-bound artists who shoot constructed tableaux fall within the relatively conventional domain of people with cameras aiming at visual phenomena “out there.” In the Getty Museum’s superb, thought-provoking exhibition Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, curator Virginia Heckert has selected seven photographers who are more concerned with exploring the fundamental nature of the medium, from the inside out.
In works that often rely on the chance effects of chemistry on paper (paper as elemental to photographic art as canvas is to the history of painting), these seven — Matthew Brandt, Marcel Breuer, John Chiara, Chris McCaw, Lisa Oppenheim, Alison Rossiter, and James Welling — extend the antecedent genealogy of pioneers such as Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and Edmund Teske (some of whose works, photograms, and the like are featured here as well). The compulsion to experiment with expired or abraded paper, retooled cameras, foreign chemical solutions, camera obscura setups, hours-long exposures, and other deviations from standard photographic practice has resulted in works that are often astonishingly beautiful, and exhilarating in their strangeness. They provide a visceral sense of the materiality of the medium that, in modernist terms, goes deeper than the frozen-in-time 2-D illusionism that most photography entails.
Most of the artists on view have a background in traditional darkroom techniques, or so-called analog photography, and their love of this “wet” approach to image-making is evident in the ways in which they seem to defiantly revel in hands-on process, tactility, and unfolding accident-driven discovery. Paper as a recording surface is reexamined and coaxed to new purpose, usually involving a keen awareness of the passage of time. Some images are course-grained, some finely etched; some black-and-white, others in saturated color; some are landscapes, either plainly pictorialist or merely suggested, others pure abstractions — compatible with the theory that abstract painting arose out of the distilled geometries of landscape. But all inhabit the horizon line between joyful science and cutting-edge, enduring art.
Source: Los Angeles Review of Books.
Back to the Future
by Colin Westerbeck
The only quibble I might have with the Getty’s excellent show, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, would be that its title is too literal-minded. A show as exciting as this one is might have had a more adventurous title – say, Back to the Future, or maybe The Framebreakers. On the other hand, the show’s curator, Virginia Heckert, might counter that the material in her exhibition is so full of paradoxes you don’t need to add another layer with a quippy title.
My analogy to the 19th-century Luddites in England, who were hand weavers that rebelled against the industrialization of their craft by smashing the mechanical weaving frames newly invented then, occurred to me because digital technology is causing a comparable upheaval in the history of photography today. But the reaction of the seven photographers in the Getty show to the situation now is more complicated — more witty and contrarian. For what these artists are breaking down and breaking up is not the new invention, but the old ways in which photography has been done since the 19th century.
Consider, for example, the work of John Chiara. Californians will recognize in his landscape photographs a nod to the mammoth-plate camera used by fellow San Franciscan Carleton Watkins to make some of the first photographs of Yosemite in 1861. Chiara’s “Big Camera” is gigundous; it’s a room-sized contraption he trailers to the sites he photographs and in which he can make images as big as 50 x 80 inches. He also goes back to the very earliest experiments in which photographers tried to make direct positives, before the advantage of the negative was discovered. Chiara’s are made on glossy color stock that he processes by sealing it, along with his chemistry, inside a six-foot length of PVC pipe. He sloshes the print around in the chemicals by rolling the pipe back and forth on the floor. The result is a print beguiling in its crudeness, its in-and-out-of focus beauty and irregularly cut edges patched together with Scotch tape.
A comparably primitive homage to photography’s past is apparent in all the work in the exhibition. Photographs made now in the vacuum of cyber space and processed in the sterile nether world of the computer have driven industrial giants like Eastman Kodak out of business. It was a civilization, as lost now as that of the ancient Incas, to which Alison Rossiter pays a kind of archeological tribute by finding and processing photographic papers long expired. In the digital darkroom, nothing needs to be left to chance, whereas in her work, everything is.
Her first experiment was with a box of Kodabromide E3 that had a 1946 expiration date. She took a sheet of that paper straight to the darkroom and processed it, as she would all her finds, without having exposed it in a camera. Processed, that first sheet looked, as she put it, “like a rubbing on a gravestone.” Sometimes her surprising results are “found photograms” (i.e.,camera—less images made by putting a physical object on photographic print paper and exposing it to light). Her photograms were created by “light leaks, oxicidation, and physical damage” or were “etched into the emulsion surface by mold.”
Source: Artillery Magazine
Performances in the Dark
by Gautam Raja
"A contemporary photography exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles pushes the limits of the medium so far, few of the artists use a camera at all."
There’s no film big enough, so Chiara shoots directly on photographic paper up to 50×70 inches. Developing the print involves loading it into PVC sewage pipe section almost as tall and broad as Chiara himself, that he has capped so it’s light tight, and agitated by rolling it up and down the clearly much-abused kitchen floor. (Photographers usually agitate by turning their little film tank over every few seconds.)
The wet darkroom
To best understand what these artists are doing, it’s helpful to quickly review the “normal” manual black-and-white photographic process using film, or analogue, cameras. Or, as they are sometimes called these digital days, “chemical cameras”.
Film is exposed and then developed by washing it in a series of chemicals to form a negative. When prints are needed, this negative is projected in a darkroom onto a sheet of photographic paper (labs would offer the choice of ‘matte’ or ‘glossy’) for a specified amount of time, before that paper is also developed and fixed in a series of chemicals.
The chemistry of this development for film and photographic paper are the same. Both come coated with silver halide crystals, among a host of other chemicals. The silver halide reacts when exposed to light, forming a latent image made from an unstable matrix of silver ions. When the paper is “developed”, this image is set by a liquid reducing agent which converts the silver ions to silver—the darker areas have more silver and the brightest areas have none at all, showing the whiteness of the paper. A stop bath arrests this development as it will eventually work on the unexposed silver halide as well, making the image a uniform black. (This process forms the heart of artist Alison Rossiter’s work, mentioned later.)
A chemical called a fixer washes away all the silver halide, ensuring the paper will no longer react to light, and leaving behind the image, writ, as it were, in silver.
You can see how even a regular photographer has a number of choices in the “wet” darkroom, and anyone who wants to experiment with the process has a huge number of variables, whether chemical choice, dilution and temperature, development times, choice of paper and so on.
It’s photographic paper that’s really the toy at this exhibition. Imagine if your childhood self was given a box of light sensitive paper to play with. What might you try? You might expose it to the light of the moon, or to flames. You might light a fuse on it, or strike a non-safety match against it. You might submerge it in water and maybe expose it to light as water trickles off it. Or maybe you’d take photographs, but instead of dipping it into chemicals, you might stand it up and pour chemicals onto it.
Every one of those options is a technique on display at Light, Paper, Process, but don’t think of the exhbition as merely playful. As Virginia Heckert, curator of the exhibit, says of some of the works, “these photographs are documenting their own making.” And of others, “painterly compositions that happen to be on photographic paper”.
Source: GULF NEWS
by Gautam Raja
In synopsis, the video of John Chiara at work is straightforward enough. A photographer takes out his camera, drives to a viewpoint, focuses, loads film, and takes a photograph. He goes home and develops the film himself. There’s nothing unusual in this for a fine arts photographer.
What’s startling is the scale at which all this is happening. Taking out the camera involves hitching it to a truck and towing it on its custom trailer. To focus, Chiara has to tug with all his might to move the camera body out inch by inch. To check focus and load film, he actually enters the camera, or “suffocation box” as he calls it, and tapes a photographic paper to the back. After crawling out through a light-tight garbage-bag chute, he’s ready to expose the shot. There’s no shutter, he simply removes the lens cap for a while. He doesn’t use a light meter or a stopwatch, just his intuition, sometimes blocking off part of the lens with his hand to balance the exposure.
There’s no film big enough, so Chiara shoots directly on photographic paper up to 50x70 inches. Developing the print involves loading it into PVC sewage pipe section almost as tall and broad as Chiara himself, that he has capped so it’s light tight, and agitated by rolling it up and down the clearly much-abused kitchen floor. (Photographers usually agitate by turning their little film tank over every few seconds.)
Chiara, based in San Francisco, is one of seven contemporary artists featured at a new exhibition at the famed J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Called Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography it pushes the medium so far that the curator’s tour visits the galleries of four photographers before arriving at one who actually uses a camera.
Source: Gulf News