John Chiara's 'Echo Lake': Portrait of the artist as an old landscape

WHAT A VIEW: John Chiara's "Echo Lake at Meyers Grade" presents an abject panorama that is the antithesis of classic landscape photography.
WHAT A VIEW: John Chiara's "Echo Lake at Meyers Grade" presents an abject panorama that is the antithesis of classic landscape photography. (John Chiara/von Lintel Gallery)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 13, 2010

BALTIMORE -- For someone like me -- someone juiced by art rich with paradox, psychic turbulence and, of course, feminist anything -- art about art is a tough sell.

With this bias in mind, it's unlikely I'd latch onto the work of John Chiara, let alone with such a firm hold. His photographs are as much about the history of his chosen medium as anything else. But the San Francisco-based Chiara -- the centerpiece of a smart group show, "You & Me Living Today/Vol. 2/The Land" at Gallery Four -- transcends references to photographic process and history, creating work that's substantial as well as beautiful.

I won't pussyfoot: One Chiara dominates the rest on view here. It's the epic, four-part "Echo Lake at Meyers Grade." The piece isn't easy. As when stepping outside on a bright day, it'll take time for your eyes to adjust to its grandeur.

Made up of four prints (their widths vary from five feet to 6 1/2 feet) hung a few inches from one another, the piece presents an abject panorama. Each picture is printed on the same roll of large-scale photo paper; you can see the jagged scissor lines where Chiara cut them apart.

The images themselves are blanched and strange, as if they were printed on expired paper and handled by clumsy photo students. There's a pink-green milkiness to one image, a blue-gray tone to its neighbor, some saturated blues and deep browns adjacent, and then a more blanched one at the end.

And then there's the panoramic nonevent these images depict. It's wintertime and we're on a desolate road near Lake Tahoe. A rusting steel barrier crumples alongside a route that hasn't seen traffic in years. Snow fell, but that was days ago. Now dirt and ice intermingle; the white stuff has browned and deadness dominates. Chiara moved his camera a few degrees in each frame so he can fully capture this pathetic piece of earth.

In style and subject, "Echo Lake at Meyers Grade" is the antithesis of classic landscape photography. Timothy H. O'Sullivan's documents of mountains and valleys? Nope. Ansel Adams's studied moonrises over expanses of gorgeousness? Not at all. But it's clear that Chiara knows this stuff -- you can sense his ambitions here.

But let's be honest: "Echo Lake at Meyers Grade" flirts with ugly. And this calculated homeliness -- the banal subject matter and intentional oddities of printing -- risks coming off as an easy rebellion against the grand history of landscape photography.

Easy, that is, until we learn how they're made.

Turns out that Chiara photographed these scenes using a massively scaled camera obscura that he constructed himself. The size of a small room with a lens embedded in one of its walls, the black box sits on a flatbed trailer that the artist drives from scene to scene. To make pictures, he enters the light-tight box and sets up massive pieces of photo paper. Then he exits by sweating through a 20-foot-long plastic duct and begins the exposure. On his Web site, you can see a video of Chiara crawling out of his camera like a calf being birthed.

In an era of point-and-click digital photos, Chiara turns imagemaking back into a struggle.

And in this age of mechanical reproduction, Chiara opts out, too. There is no negative; these images happen when light hits photo paper, and they can't be duplicated. Chiara uses the time it takes to expose the paper (anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour) to dodge and burn, but that doesn't offer a lot of room for manipulation. Later he develops the prints by rolling them around inside massive, capped-off tubes (made for sewer pipes) that he fills with darkroom chemicals.

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