Book Review: California by John Chiara
By Leah Pfenning
Memory is a process. What we remember builds and fades, forever oscillating between meaning and purpose. On a brain scan the act of thinking and the act of remembering look nearly identical. Neurologists still don’t quite know how we summon a memory, but they can discern we use every part of our brain when we remember something. What fascinates photographer John Chiara is this process, what it takes to make a memory. Chiara describes his work as part photography, part sculpture, and part event, a unique process that delivers a nostalgic assault on the soul in his debut and much anticipated book, California.
Chiara studied photography at the University of Utah and California College of the Arts, the latter from which he received his MFA. After graduating, Chiara moved to San Francisco and worked in a photo-processing lab, spending much of his free time engrossed in photography books. Chiara believes that “photography has a long and complicated relationship with memory.” He began developing a feeling that much of the integrity of the photo was lost in the darkroom enlargement process. To eradicate that loss, in 1997 Chiara built his first large-format camera, a 16-by-20-inch view camera with a 600mm lens. The photographer then transformed his Mission District studio into a camera obscura, using his handmade camera as a focusing device to project images onto photographic paper, in lieu of film.
The photographic work Chiara creates is extremely distinct. His cameras have evolved and grown in size over the years. The images that are featured in California were captured with a handmade 50-by-80-inch field camera that he transported to different locations on a flatbed trailer. Once Chiara chooses the location he wants to photograph, he sets up his camera securing a large sheet of positive color photographic paper to the back wall, a process which he has to physically enter the camera in complete darkness to achieve. After the photographic paper is in place, Chiara opens the lens and adjusts the light entering the camera with his hand. This intuitive control of light is what burns the large-scale images onto the photographic paper. Chiara then uses a spinning drum lined with the photographic paper to agitate the chemistry in order to develop the final image.
Chiara spends a lot of time visiting locations before he shoots, understanding the light and getting a feel for what he wants to capture. Chiara has created a process of capturing an image that is like the making of a memory. The manual control of the exposure and the developing leaves the images with an ambiguity, more of an impression of the feeling of a place than the exacting details of a digital image. Chiara’s photos are often “flawed” with striations, residue from the tape securing the paper to the camera, or overexposure. These so-called imperfections become the signature of the craft itself. What make our memories so intimate are their exclusivity and their ineffable tether to our emotional subconscious. Chiara works together with his camera in an animate/inanimate collaboration to create an inimitable memory, a memory by its emotional familiarity, he lends for us to adopt as our own.
All photographs courtesy of Aperature/Pier Photography, 2017 and © John Chiara.