The magazine of photography and ideas
John Chiara's Sidewalk Studio: A Conversation with Allie Haeusslein
Known for building his own cameras, John Chiara speaks about transforming New York into a colorful, otherworldly landscape.
Using large-scale cameras he designs and builds himself, John Chiara combines perspective and performance to capture ethereal views of nature and the built environment. His one-of-a-kind prints are distinctive for their materiality and sculptural effects. Chiara, known for images from San Francisco and Los Angeles, spent the last year making photographs in Manhattan and the Hudson River Valley, which were presented together in his recent exhibition, West Side at Tioronda, at Yossi Milo Gallery. Here, Chiara speaks about the challenges of working in New York and how he transformed the iconic city into a boldly colorful, otherworldly landscape.
Allie Haeusslein: Could you describe your process?
John Chiara: I build out the equipment and processes to physically produce the work given those parameters. The equipment and process both revolve around the type of lens and positive, color photographic paper I use. When I’m out shooting, I directly expose the paper, dodge, burn, and filter the light as if I were working in the darkroom. I have been working with this intuitive process for about twenty years now. Often, I work from the inside of a large camera obscura to expose photographic paper up to 50-by-80 inches. I then develop the image using a section of capped PVC pipe filled with chemistry and then roll the tube across the studio floor to process the photograph.
Haeusslein: You mention your large camera obscura, but you also work with cameras of various sizes. What dictates your decisions about what camera to use in a given environment?
Chiara: When I start photographing in a new place, I take time to figure out the right camera to use. For instance, I started photographing Manhattan with a 34-by-28-inch camera; the images feel pulled in because there is no room to step back when working from the street or sidewalk. In this vertical format, these images feel like fragments ripped from the landscape.
I faced many, many logistical challenges photographing in New York with a 34-by-28-inch camera and a 50-by-55-inch camera obscura. When I first started, in June 2015, I was moving the camera around Chelsea on a dolly and using the storage area behind the front desk of Yossi Milo Gallery in New York to unload and reload the large film backs. Working on the sidewalk with large equipment draws a lot of attention. Although there are some benefits to working like this, the process is laborious and makes expanding your photographic terrain difficult.
Several months later, I rented a red Ford F150 and photographed from the bed of the truck. The truck allowed me to drive around looking for photographs to take. I could jump out, take the protective slide out of the film back, adjust the camera in the bed, and then complete the twenty second to three minute exposure. I was fortunate to find My Own Color Lab on West Twenty-Seventh Street, where they allowed me to run prints through their processor so I could review images as I was working. It has been great to become a part of this community and to develop alongside other photographers I admire, like Liz Nielson and Letha Wilson.
To capture what I wanted to photograph while working with a fixed lens at a fixed focal length, from the back of a truck on the streets of New York, I started making vertical and horizontal diptychs. I would take one view of the scene on a sheet of paper, then another view of the scene on a second sheet, to create a staggered effect; after completing several of these diptychs, it occurred to me that I should build a larger format camera. I built a 50-by-30-inch camera, which provided more vertical perspective.
I learn from every picture I take and use what I have learned to develop the work. For me, this way of working is particularly well suited to examining the landscape.
Haeusslein: Did you have any particularly memorable interactions on the streets of New York as a result of your very visible photographic process?
Chiara: My most memorable interaction was when we took the photograph Fulton Street at Church Street right at the edge of Ground Zero. For some time, I had wanted to make a photograph from the valet zone in front of the Hilton Hotel on the corner. The energy and security is so intense there; you can almost feel it in the air. We had been driving down Fulton Street for weeks trying to figure out exactly where and when I would be able to photograph the area just as the reflection off One World Trade Center would glare directly into the camera’s lens.
There was a huge blizzard in New York back in late January. The Sunday after the blizzard was projected to be sunny, but it was also the coldest day of the year at negative fifteen to negative twenty degrees. I decided this was the day to try to take this picture, thinking the area would be more vacant. At 2PM, we approached Fulton Street at Church Street just as the light was starting to beam off One World Trade Center and, in a stroke of luck, there was an open parking spot in the loading zone near the corner. My assistant, Brett Johnston, and I jumped into the truck bed to remove the slide and then hefted the new 50-by-30-inch-format camera over the truck’s ceiling and aimed it directly at the glare coming off the Freedom Tower. We did this too quickly and were struggling to keep the camera from falling off the truck. As we were doing this, a blinding, god-like light started to flare off One World Trade Center to the West just as a large man started yelling at us from the street to the East, “Hey, what are you doing?” Totally distracted, neither of us answered. As he approached the truck and continued raising his voice, the doorman from the Hilton overheard and came outside, saying “Hey man. It’s a large camera. I bet they are taking some kind of picture.” I fell in love with New York City right then and there.
Haeusslein: Why did you decide to invert the color palette for the photographs made around Manhattan?
Chiara: There are too many reasons to mention them all. When I was contemplating the possibility of photographing in New York, I started experimenting shooting directly onto chromogenic paper on the streets of San Francisco. This process not only physically inverts an image and its colors, but also reverses light and shadow. It creates an image that is profoundly more graphic. Subtle changes in light gradations on architecture become more visible as its saturated negative in the photograph. I believe the negative has subliminal qualities and exposes the underlying properties that make up the landscape.
Haeusslein: Did you focus on particular neighborhoods in Manhattan? If so, what drew you to these locations in particular?
Chiara: I made the decision to photograph in Manhattan because I wanted the work to have an undiluted sense of place. I saw an opportunity to make still images that feel electric, or carry an energy parallel to the kind of chaotic beauty that makes this city what it is. I thought about making images that distilled this essence so a viewer could meditate on this idea.
I usually begin photographing a new place near where the exhibition will take place. This strategy allows me to experiment with technical calibrations while also giving me the time to think about the exhibition space and its surrounding area. The first picture I took, for example, was of the side of the building that houses Yossi Milo Gallery.
Once I got a truck, I started working up and down the West Side. After I got comfortable working there, I was drawn toward the city’s center and started to make work on Park Avenue.
Eventually, another one of my assistants, Josh Olley, helped me find a place near him in Chinatown, under the Manhattan Bridge. Soon after moving, I began to see photographic opportunities right outside the front door and on the adjacent streets. No one seemed bothered as my assistants and I moved large pieces of equipment in and out of the building on a daily basis. My bed basically takes up the whole room, but there is just enough space to unload, load, and store the large film backs and paper.
Haeusslein: Where are you interested in making pictures next?
Chiara: I want to keep making work here in New York and in California. I would like to keep developing the Mississippi work as well. Someday in the future, I hope to be invited to an artist residency in France, or possibly Italy.
Haeusslein: What about France and Italy do you find particularly intriguing? Have you ever photographed abroad?
Chiara: The only time I photographed across the Atlantic was in 1993. Taking a break from my undergraduate studies, I hefted my Mamiya 330 twin lens and tripod across Europe during a six-month backpacking trip. I did not visit France on that trip, but I did travel through Italy by train. Looking out the window, the landscape resonated with me.
I visited France for the first time this April for my solo exhibition In Camera: American Landscapes at NextLevel Galerie in Paris. My first thought after arriving was, Why haven’t I been coming here all along? After spending some time around Paris, I feel there are opportunities for me to make work in France. I can already envision what I could do in Italy or France. I see a direction to go in.
Allie Haeusslein is the Associate Director at Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco.
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