The Development of John Chiara

John Chiara, “20th at San Bruno,” 2002

For Bay Area native John Chiara (MFA 2004), who is preparing to create a series of photographs in and of New York, swapping the Bay Area for the Big Apple presents a few challenges.

The issue is not at all about tackling New York's art scene; having had 2013 shows at Pier 24 Photography and the de Young in San Francisco, as well as at galleries in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Zurich, it's clear that he is already coming into focus for an increasing audience worldwide.

Take a virtual walk-through of the Pier 24 show with Chiara’s work »

Rather, New York will be a challenge in terms of the subject matter it offers up, given that until now Northern California has been such a looming presence in Chiara's work. The Bay Area infuses the photography of this San Francisco-born artist like the terroir of a vintage bottle of Saint-Emilion.

Working throughout the Bay Area, Chiara takes large photographs -- as big as 50 by 80 inches, to be specific -- using a massive, custom, hand-built camera that he transports on its own trailer.

Once he's selected a location, he situates and then physically enters the camera, placing positive color photographic paper on its back wall, then using his hands to burn and dodge the image by manipulating the light coming in the lens.

The paper is then developed by spinning the drum, which agitates chemicals over the photographic paper. The process often leaves irregularities on the picture, and each picture is necessarily one of a kind, since the process involves neither film nor negatives.

Given the painstaking, manual method, progress is steady and measured. Currently, he is having another camera built in preparation for his project in New York.

Watch a KQED Spark video feature on Chiara’s process »

Finding His Artist’s -- and Teacher’s -- Voice

After graduating from the University of Utah in 1995 with a BFA in photography, Chiara found it a challenge to support his artwork financially. He had a succession of jobs, from graphic design to substitute teaching (K-12), running a screenprinting business, and web development for real estate firms.

"When I graduated," he says, "there were two jobs I swore I'd never do: work in a Joe Schmo photography lab and teach high school." Not only has he served his time in a photo lab ("a real sweatshop," he laughs), but also he now teaches part-time at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco.

“I love that school," he says. "It's one of the best places in the city. I teach photography and sculpture. There are seven or eight kids in each class, so I feel I can really have an effect."

Chiara credits his teaching skills to his mentors at CCA: Larry Sultan, Richard Misrach, and Susan Ciriclio.

"Susan gave me really practical advice: how to format a professional teaching résumé, how to develop a teaching philosophy. She also championed programs in which grads could co-teach, which hugely improved my ability to support myself."

Ciriclio played a part in Chiara's education even before he got to CCA. "I started applying in 1995, although I wasn't accepted until 2002," he recalls. "And even before I ever arrived, Susan was helping me. We talked about my process, about Cibachrome printing and drum processing. She gave me the technical information I needed to grow as a photographer."

Advice from Larry Sultan

Nearly a decade out from his MFA, as he starts to see wider success with his photography, Chiara continues to draw on advice he was given at CCA.

"This year I sold some work. It's the first time I've hired people. It's the first time I've made some money. And I remembered something Larry Sultan told me: 'When you make money from your art, invest right back into it.' So when I heard that the manufacturers of Ilfochrome paper were discontinuing it, I bought what I hope is a lifetime supply, plus a freezer to store the paper at minus-20 degrees. I'm definitely committed to working this way."

Sultan also played a critical role in Chiara's evolution as an artist. In 2003, his photography featured jagged elements on the surface of the paper. "There was a lot of psychological disruption to the image. I felt it was meaningful to the state I was in. It was a difficult time for me -- I was dealing with a lot of stuff, working too hard running my business.

"Larry recognized the sense of controlled chaos in my work, and told me the control had gone too far. My hands were in it too much. So I started to find elements in the landscape that would disrupt the field of view. I became more of a photographer.

"Larry Sultan was the most articulate, intuitive professor. Almost shamanistic, at times. He had hyper-intuition; he'd be looking at your work and get totally under the surface of it, and then articulate his reactions so clearly."

Bay Area Roots

Chiara was born in San Francisco and grew up in the hills near Concord and Walnut Creek. As a youth, he found himself drawn to early photographers of Northern California such as Carleton Watkins, who used an oversize camera and huge glass-plate negatives.

Chiara's work combines much of that sensibility with an appreciation for the imperfections of the medium: hazy light, uneven exposures.

This past year, Chiara's geographical focus opened up. Over six months he made a series of trips to Southern California, commissioned by Rose Shoshana of Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, and subsequently showed them at her gallery. "L.A. is fascinating," says Chiara. "And for my work, it wasn’t a stretch at all."

He has also spent time recently in a different kind of art hotspot: Clarksdale, Mississippi. "That idea came from Rose Shoshana too. I really trust her, and she told me, 'I think your work would really sparkle there.' She set the whole thing up. It was kind of magical. And incredibly hot! It's so different because it's flat farmland. And it's all green. Everything's green."

Upcoming Solo Show

Wherever he sets his lens, from Contra Costa County to Clarksdale, from the East Bay to the East Coast, John Chiara continues to develop. You can see his work here in San Francisco in his upcoming March 2014 solo show at Haines Gallery.