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John Chiara


"Because the images are so big, I feel like I can push them to the point where they're almost falling away."
-- John Chiara
View Spark segment on John Chiara. Original air date: May 2006. (Running Time: 7:16)

Whereas most of us have embraced digital cameras for their sleek, lightweight design and instant gratification, landscape photographer John Chiara favors his own super-sized camera. In the episode "Experimentation," Spark catches up with Chiara on location as he sets up his camera obscura atop one of San Francisco's familiar vista points.

His unique approach is influenced by the early days of photography when artists dealt with heavy, awkward equipment and endured long exposure times and cumbersome developments. Chiara's own process is a labor-intensive endeavor -- often taking him an entire day to get a single image -- however, unlike his 19th-century predecessors, Chiara's images are, like his camera, large, usually measuring 62 inches by 50 inches.

The nature of Chiara's work is as much about sculpture and performance as it is about photography. His camera, which he designed and built himself, is transported to each location on a flatbed trailer. The pinhole design enables him to shoot and develop simultaneously on oversized photosensitive paper. After making adjustments to orient the camera in the right direction, Chiara must then climb inside it. Immersed in the darkness, he uses the glare of light to help him find the image. Becoming an extension of the camera, he uses his hands, by way of intuition, to control the amount of light entering the lens.

Bearing a strong resemblance to watercolor paintings, his photographs are rendered in soft, faded hues that relay an ephemeral quality. Early in his career he focused on creating pristine, color-saturated pictures. As he began to change his approach, he developed his own processes as well as his own rules. To accommodate the size of his images, he fabricated a drum roll from a sewage pipe to develop them.

His views are not what he considers picture perfect. They seem to be framed as if by accident. The ordinariness of his landscape imagery connects to Chiara's childhood days spent daydreaming and staring off into the distance. Chiara encourages viewers to spend time with his work in hopes that the images will evoke emotional responses.

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. He has exhibited locally and nationally, including a solo show at the Build Gallery and group exhibitions at New Langton Arts in San Francisco and the Von Lintel Gallery in New York.

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