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John Chiara Biography

San Francisco-based contemporary photographer John Chiara expands the boundaries of the photographic medium while revisiting its origins. The subjects in his imposing images are of subsidiary importance to the process. In the era of instant high-grade photography from the humble pocket-fitting cellphone, Chiara invokes the techniques of a bygone era to make something new.

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Born in San Francisco in 1971, Chiara has spent most of his life in California, and it is the setting for many of his images. This career-long fascination with the state's vistas came together in his monograph John Chiara: California (2017). Growing up visual memories were important to him, those moments staring off into the distant landscape etched into his mind.

Capturing visual moments has become John Chiara's life's work. He studied photography at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, graduating with a BFA in 1995, and at California College of the Arts, graduating with an MFA in 2004. Out of this came understanding of the medium's intricacies and origins.

The defining moment of John Chiara's career came in 1995. Finding fault with the result of the darkroom enlargement process working with negatives, he began to experiment with more direct first-generation photography techniques. For the next six years, as manufacturers were designing increasingly small cameras packed with ever more sophisticated technology, Chiara was experimenting with his own hand-built cameras—large cumbersome contraptions inspired by their earliest predecessors.

Based on the principles of 19th-century daguerreotypes and camera obscuras, John Chiara's cameras do not require film, instead transferring an image directly from the lens to a sheet of colour photographic paper over a long exposure. A long and imprecise process demanding great technical skill, it produces unique one-of-a-kind photographic prints and circumvents the darkroom process. Requiring long exposure times, it also slows time down, capturing only the steadfast unchanging elements of a scene.

In 1999, Chiara began the large-scale exposure process he is best known for. His largest camera is the size of a small car and requires its own trailer for transport to the shooting location. It is then manoeuvred with the vehicle and vehicle-jacks to line up a shot. The artist works both inside and outside the pitch-black box to set up the oversized photographic paper and regulate the sun's glare and exposure through the lens. The subsequent large photograph is developed in a spinning drum process that leaves traces in the final image.

Chiara's photographs documenting scenic locales in California, Mississippi, and New York are not the crisp, refined images one typically expects of landscape and urban photography. From a technical standpoint each image is flawed with many imperfections, from discolouration and smudges to paper not cut straight. Some works are devolved almost to a level of abstraction, requiring the viewer to look at the image carefully to piece together the subject.

These imperfections, however, convey to the viewer the process and materiality of the photographic medium. Though a product of photographic processes their artistry in this regard is akin to painting. John Chiara's unique photographs, large and small, have been widely exhibited in group and solo shows in galleries and institutions the United States. They also feature in exhibitions overseas such as Twisted Sisters: Reimagining Urban Portraiture, at Zurich's Museum Barengasse in 2013.

Biography by Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2020

John Chiara In Related Press

John Chiara’s Uncanny City Related Press John Chiara’s Uncanny City 11 July 2018, The New York Times

The titanic architecture of what may be the world’s second-most-photographed city (if Paris still holds the top spot) has been shot again and again, with steadily diminishing returns. It will never again be possible to match the awe that attended the sight of the Flatiron Building upon its construction in 1902, as shown in the many pictures taken...

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Nothing Outdated About John Chiara’s Traditional Techniques Related Press Nothing Outdated About John Chiara’s Traditional Techniques 15 November 2017, KQED

San Francisco–based artist John Chiara creates photographs with a handmade camera so large it must be towed on a trailer. The devices works like a camera obscura, box or room-like constructions that predate photography and are used to focus images on a wall through a small hole. While Chiara uses large, high-quality lenses, his process is similar...

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California Today: An Analog View of California Related Press California Today: An Analog View of California 27 October 2017, The New York Times

John Chiara does his photography from scratch. Even as taking pictures has gotten simpler, Mr. Chiara, 46, constructs his own box cameras—known as camera obscuras—that draw in light through a small hole onto photographic paper. His biggest camera is the size of a small elephant, which he hauls on a trailer and positions in front of his...

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Photographing California with a camera as big as a truck Related Press Photographing California with a camera as big as a truck 26 October 2017, LA Times

Chiara built his first large-format camera in 1997. He wanted 'a certain type of image that wasn’t available through commercial cameras, so I had to develop my own,' he told The Times. Instead of film, he uses large sheets of photographic paper that he exposes through a lens opposite—like a camera obscura, or a huge pinhole camera, or a large...

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