John Chiara has made a career of revealing in a wholly new manner places that have been captured endlessly in paintings and photographs. Early on, in his last year at art school, he built an enormous camera obscura hauled on a truckbed that he used to explore the San Francisco area. After that he targeted Los Angeles (and sites around California), and most recently New York City and the Hudson River Valley. His makeshift cameras, which Chiara enters and operates from within, use wall-mounted photosensitive paper to catch light passing through the lens that he burns, dodges, and often filters to simulate darkroom processes — but in the field, in real time. For the New York series, West Side at Tioronda, he switched from direct-positive Cibachrome paper to sheets designed for use with negatives, which produce inverted colors. Blue becomes dark orange, shadow becomes light. The effects of the “noise” he surrenders to — light leaks and flares, traces of tape, anomalies of exposure that make most photographers cringe — create ghostly images that Chiara likens to the slivers and ambiguities of memory. These are not so much observational portraits of place as they are impressionistic moments of heightened reality, almost psychotropic in their distortion and intensity. As he remains interior to the camera, so does his art feel interior to our vision.
“There is no better way to fall in love with a place than to sincerely try to photograph it,” says Chiara. He arrived in New York with visual preconceptions, but in the course of shooting there his sense of the place changed. His electrifying images of the cityscape, some towering, some closeup, alter our own perspective of the city.
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, degrading, and aberrations of color and temperature, Chiara finds a kind of rapture in the very DNA of the photographic medium. Meanwhile, the reflectiveness of the paper adds to the dimensionality of the surface, and suggests objectness as much as image. The irregularities — crooked trims and curled edges — humanize the photograph’s mechanical origins. The viewer is always drawn back to the work’s concrete properties as image carrier as well as image. Aesthetics are piggybacked onto process, which is made front and center.
Much of Chiara’s work links the long and hallowed line of landscape photography to the more rarefied vein of photograms, but he is equally devoted to the built environment that he finds in urban centers. A series shot in 2014, Detached, focused on a disappearing mid-century housing district in San Francisco: a lamentation on the iconic city’s loss of its renowned identity. Invited to shoot in northern Mississippi, he says, it was the “emotional weight” of the walls he found there that attracted him, and he plans to continue “mining the area.”
Although he often shoots on populated streets, he separates himself from the traditional realm of street photography by virtue of his peopleless end results. For his New York series, Chiara plays with the act of strolling through a soaring metropolis, a flâneur idly absorbing the geometries that define Manhattan. He had to construct a new device capable of a wider angle and more vertical exposures, and ventured into diptychs that fused two perspectives, one above the other. These multiple views suggest the fractures of Cubism, the impulse to present different angles of vision on the same field and thereby bend static reality to meet temporal reality. His work inspires meditations in many directions, and not least on the psychology of seeing things passed unnoticed until they are transformed by tricks of light.
John Chiara, West Side at Tioronda, is on view at Yossi Milo Gallery through May 21.
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