Perhaps as a backlash to the preponderance of digital photography, experimental photography has been on the rise in recent years. Photographers have taken to putting the technical aspects of the medium in the foreground, while the captured image (if there is one) is secondary. Abelardo Morrell, for example, turns whole rooms into camera obscura cityscapes; Matthew Brandt processes and prints photographs using materials derived from the photo source; and Alison Rossiter creates cameraless abstractions using vintage photo paper and developer.
This deconstructionist impulse is paying off for San Francisco photographer John Chiara, who has worked in this vein for years, making his own cameras and trying out photographic and printing techniques. Most significantly, he built a 50-by-80-inch camera-obscura box that he transports on a flatbed trailer. Chiara physically enters the camera through a long black tube in order to create unique images manipulated “in camera.”
Chiara produced his new series, on view at Jackson Fine Art through October 31, while on a residency in rural Mississippi. Using his truck-mounted camera, he captured numerous landscapes, some bleak and foreboding, with bare trees and brown grasses, others with leafy trees overgrown with kudzu, the sound of cicadas almost audible and the blanket of humidity palpable.
To create his one-of-a-kind photographs, Chiara tapes photographic paper to the interior wall of his camera and exposes it for up to 20 minutes. In some cases, the long exposure results in an unnatural palette and a brightness that is quite different from the one he encountered in the actual landscape. Each photograph takes on an overall hue, like monochromatic jewels. The tape marks are visible, the paper’s edges often uneven, and it is this very hands-on quality that imbues the photographs with a time-worn quality. Certain scenes suggest ancient forests or bogs, while other prints resemble faded photos from the 1970s.
To his credit, Chiara didn’t fall victim to the temptation of other artists visiting the South, who are easily drawn to stereotypical scenes of the rural poor and rundown structures. Chiara instead seems to be searching for something less tangible—something that, like the phantoms captured in so-called “ghost photography,” seeks to capture the soul of a place.