John Chiara: California

John Chiara: California

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Hardcover, published by Aperture, 2017.

Read a book review by Crown Point staff member, Carleigh Koger:

San Francisco native John Chiara is an experimental photographer who builds his own cameras, which reach up to 50-by-80 inches in size. He typically uses a 40-by-50-inch camera obscura; the print is similar to a daguerreotype. He hauls the large handmade camera in the back of his trailer and assembles it on-site. He physically enters the camera and pins photographic paper directly to its wall, then uses his body to dodge and burn specific areas. Chiara allows chance and guesswork to influence the outcome of his photographs. The artist does not use film; each image is unique and can take up to a full day to finish. The slow, laborious process results in giant one-of-a-kind photographs that envelop the viewer.

John Chiara’s book, California (2017), is a beautiful homage to the golden state. It is in a large-scale format, with landscape and architectural photographs filling entire pages. With his homemade camera in tow, Chiara traveled to Los Angeles, Oakland, and various California cities in between. In the first half of his book he chronicles his journey in Southern California, and in the second half he spends his time in Northern California. An artist statement and an essay by Virginia Heckert divide the two sections. In his statement, Chiara cites memory as a major theme in his work and reflects on memory’s relationship to photography. Looking at photographs can conjure past memories and feelings, differing from viewer to viewer. His subjects are often unrecognizable, yet feel familiar. He describes his chosen locations as “the type of places you would normally walk past without paying much attention.”

Imperfections such as light leaks, distortions, and chemical stains are embraced in Chiara’s process. These happy accidents add an edgy, abstracted element. The photographs are energetic and voyeuristic, as if someone was hiding behind bushes to quickly snap a picture. Scenes of lush landscapes and stony buildings are devoid of humans or animals, and have a dreamlike effect. The colors range from wintery blues to warm sepia tones like those seen in vintage photographs. Nostalgia emanates from the pages of the book, especially in scenes of hazy sun-soaked beaches or overgrown fields.

Chiara’s Mount Holyoke Avenue at Pacific Coast, Pacific Palisades, 2013 is a photograph of a beach taken from a high vantage point. The sun blindingly reflects off the ocean and dark palm trees stand along the sand. Two parallel panels cross the image, as if the photographer was positioned behind a fence. Creases and chemical stains can be seen around the border and reddish hues saturate the photo like a rosy filter. The scene is inviting; viewers can easily place themselves within the photo and feel warmth from the summer sun or hear the sounds from distant waves.

John Chiara’s refreshing approach to photography is performative and innovative. His book, California, is a thorough catalog that showcases the artist’s talent as he captures California’s beauty with a new and thoughtful point of view. Each memory-infused photograph is carefully crafted to draw an emotional response through a distinct sense of time and place.