Dreamscapes: A Photographer Processes the City's Essence Through His Gigantic Camera Obscura

What John Chiara does with a camera — not just any camera, but ones so big he drives it around San Francisco on a flatbed trailer — is utterly time-consuming and physically demanding. Chiara makes the cameras himself from plywood and insulation foam, and maneuvers his body inside to make the mechanisms work. The photos require hours of exposure time at the shooting scene, and then an elaborate development process where Chiara rolls the photo papers inside huge tubes. The result: one-of-a-kind images that defy modern convention.

Chiara's new exhibit at Haines Gallery, “de • tached,” takes art-goers around the edges of San Francisco's less illustrious residential architecture, and then to the edge of the city itself, Ocean Beach. The sunlight in Chiara's photos is both intense and diffuse. Here and there, the images are scuffed from developing, with knots and other curious shapes embedded like birthmarks. Since exposure times are so long, people never appear in Chiara's photos. Time and perception are twisted in these snapshots — as if Chiara created a series of dissonant dreamscapes that belie the facts they're supposed to document.

“Most of photography is more objective, but I purposefully avoid having people in my work because that automatically makes it objective,” Chiara says. “For me, it's about the process of memory. [My photography] parallels the process of recollection of memory, where it's unbound and has divergent edges. You can move around in memory and you can get clarity from moments, but it's shifting — you can never quite solidify it.”

The dissonance in Chiara's images makes them more challenging — and more appealing. For “de • tached,” Chiara used his homemade camera obscura to spotlight single-family homes in the Sunset and Excelsior districts that were built in the early-to-mid-1900s. The city's Victorian architecture, which stands out in Pacific Heights, the Castro, and Haight-Ashbury, gets the lion's share of residential attention in San Francisco, but the houses in the Sunset and Excelsior — built in everything from a Mediterranean Revival style to what's called Streamline Moderne — are notable for their compact structures and small, distinctive touches (like clay roof tiles). Less is more in these houses, and in Chiara's photos.

Chiara manages to do what painter Georgia O'Keeffe does in her most sublime work: reduce a bigger scene to its bare essence. Chiara funnels a neighborhood of row houses into an image of a single home with a single garage door that's waiting to be opened, as he does with 155 Somerset, taken in the Excelsior. O'Keeffe, whose work from Lake George in upstate New York is on display at the de Young Museum through May 11, did this with flowers and with buildings, as in Lake George Barns from 1926. The walls of three basic barns — none of them in full view — connect and complement one another under a cool gray sky. “Nothing,” O'Keeffe once said, “is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get to the real meaning of things.”

Curators around the country like the meaning they find in Chiara's work, which he's exhibited since 2003. Chiara was one of a select few whose art was picked for the recent de Young exhibit, “Crown Point Press at Fifty.” Among prestigious museums that have Chiara's images: The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A native San Franciscan with an M.F.A. in photography from California College of the Arts, Chiara, 42, began making his own cameras almost 20 years ago after developing and enlarging traditional film and realizing that he wanted more control over the image. One of his first jobs after getting his bachelor's degree in photography from the University of Utah was developing photos at a commercial lab in San Francisco.

“I worked there 45-50 hours a week, and it was like a sweatshop — you don't want to go back to a place like that when you're off work,” he says. “I had a studio apartment on Capp Street, and I was doing work in my kitchen, contact-printing, and I just loved the visceral quality of it, and the depth of the image. It just holds so much more information.”

When Chiara is out photographing in San Francisco, strangers will approach him — curious about the contraption he's hauling around. At first glance, Chiara's biggest camera looks like a storage facility with plastic bagging around it. “It's not a beautiful camera,” Chiara says, laughing. It's when people see the camera's lens that they finally realize its purpose. Chiara's camera obscura is constructed like the daguerreotypes that Louis Daguerre originated in the mid-1800s, though on a much bigger scale. “It is the exact design of Mr. Daguerre's box camera,” Chiara says. “It has a glass plate that folds out, like on a pulley system, and that's where I usually enter the camera. That's where I pull it shut and close it. And then the two boxes pull out for focus. The images have a similar quality [to Daguerre's], except his images were on polished metal, and mine are on polyurethane, but they do have an intense glare and density to them. They're very glossy.”

They're also imperfect. Besides the development marks, the images' outer edges are misshapen. Instead of parallel edges, they're ragged in places, resembling the teeth of a great white shark. “I'm not trying to make a perfect photograph, or what's been canonized as a perfect photograph,” Chiara says. “These things that show process and have some aspect of disruption go with the material itself and go with my take on memory. Some people describe them as mistakes or flaws, but I don't think they are.”

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