Every photographer has wished, at some point, that they could substitute the lens for their own eye. John Chiara does the next best thing: he crawls inside his homemade camera, the size of a small Uhual trailer, in order to make unique photographs. He may not be able to be the camera’s retina, but he can certainly inhabit its brain. The results are monumentally large (Chiara develops the prints in a large sewage pipe), and the intuitive process unpredictable and time-consuming. Chiara’s anachronistic imaging system maps the landscape in front of him, laying bare photography’s own inner workings in doing so.
For Fort at Lime Point, John Chiara’s second solo exhibition in New York City at Von Lintel Gallery, the San Francisco based photographer has crafted some of his most subtle and uneasy work to date. Chiara has long chartered the sublimity of nature and its sometimes uneasy cohabitation with the structures upon its surface; this body of work, however, is anchored to a site of specific historical gravity.
Fort Lime Point is a little known military base, established on the San Francisco Bay during the Civil War. However, due to a lengthy litigation, the military was unable to begin excavating the site until a year after the war was over, in 1866. They did so by leveling the found with 24,000 pounds of gunpowder, attempting the level a base at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Rubble still exists there, left over from the blast over a century ago. The site is a reminder not only of extreme intervention with natural resources, but a failed attempt at creating a military defense base. It is a telling choice of location, and one that reflects back nicely on Chiara’s medium and process; this site, like the haunting photographs that depict it (and neighboring areas) in this show, is a waking memory of its own flawed history. And like the images, the place decays and morphs in front of our eyes.
The images are square, and slightly smaller than I’ve seen Chiara work in the past — both effects are welcome, and passively eerie. Many of the photographs are also inverted, which also add to their ghostliness and sense of self containment. Chiara has allowed for more mistakes and imperfections to abstract and obfuscate (a third of his image has been exposed and is thereby blank in Starr King: Coral: Beacon), and the results are, at points, painterly. In the age of high resolution, it is becoming hard to imagine that a photograph could record so subjectively.
Chiara reminds us of the simultaneous complexities and profound simplicity of the photograph process. It is a box and a lens. But, by pairing it with a site of historical consequence (or non-consequence, as the case may be), it is also the keeper of our memories made manifest.
Fort at Lime Point will be on view at Von Lintel Gallery through January 7th, 2012. Chiara’s work is also on view at Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco through December, 16th, as part of the exhibition HERE. Pier 24 Photography recently released a video featuring Chiara discussing his recent works and unique photographic process.