Looking Back

John Chiara

March 1, 2024

We asked John Chiara to tell us about a picture that means something to him, and why. Chiara’s unique landscape photographs, made using cameras he’s built himself, are expressive, otherworldly images that are highly process-driven. His work involves light imprinting directly onto photographic paper, without the intermediary of film. Chance and accident are welcome aspects of his approach, and the light leaks and chemical stains leave spectral, ephemeral marks on the images. A selection of his work will be on view at San Francisco’s Haines Gallery, opening March 15, with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 pm, and on view through April 27. Sea of Glass includes work Chiara made during a residency on Treasure Island, located in the waters separating San Francisco and Oakland.

In late February, 2020, I made my way to the Fundaziun Nairs residency program in the southeastern Swiss Alps. While I was speeding on the Austrian Autobahn in my Ford Ranger rental with Hungarian license plates, my left back wheel came off. I watched it fly past me on the highway and blast over a fence. It was a harbinger of a time when history would go off the rails.

Shortly after I arrived at the residency, the Swiss borders closed due to the coronavirus. The town shut down, and most people fled. The solitude there, and working with the landscape, seemed to counter the turbulence of the global pandemic. I wanted to figure out how to capture the feeling of watching the energy that flows through the Alps.

I work primarily with large-scale cameras I have built myself, and my process renders images directly onto photographic paper. This picture was taken near the town of Ftan, in the Lower Engadin of the Swiss Alps. The towns of the Engadin Valley are often on a slope up the mountains, and from this vantage point, the clouds form down by the river – in the gulch of the valley. They also form midway up the Alps, and there is a set of clouds flowing over the range.

I built a 50×30-inch camera to capture the verticality of the landscape. I became interested in layering exposures by shifting the camera in different directions and staggering the exposure times, which involves pre-visualing how the exposures will overlap to create the sensation of watching the clouds  – and time – flow through the range, how the work might align, how the images might go in and out of each other if I expose several images on the same piece of paper.

The Lower Engadin Valley is a continental divide. The higher you go up the more you see. Far, far back in the Alps, the mountains shed cement tears.