At first it didn’t attract much attention, the massive box sitting in the back of the Ford F-150 pickup truck parked in the Chelsea art district. Stuff gets dragged around New York City all the time and someone is always parked illegally in a loading zone.

But this particular box drew some attention when photographer John Chiara and his assistant pointed it at the nearby Frank Gehry-designed building and began making photographs.

John Chiara Photo © Zev Schmitz
Chiara’s camera is little more than a giant box with a lens capable of projecting onto its interior a large image at the proper focal length. This produces beautiful and slightly apocalyptic colour negative photographs. Chiara has been photographing for 20 years with a variety of large cameras, mostly on the West Coast near San Francisco. It was there that he first had the idea to build a camera obscura. The west coast version, equipped with film to turn it into a true camera, was as big as a caravan. It allowed Chiara to literally make pictures from inside the machine – and even to insert himself into the image if he chose to do so. Hauling his giant camera with him round San Francisco, Chiara produced a new form of landscape photography. And in New York, he produced a new form of street photography and a new urban vision.

DAMN°: Where did you get the idea to use a big camera?

Jogn Chiara: As a university student in Utah, I was contact-printing large negatives and was blown away by the detail. So I had the idea to build equipment for an even larger format, up to a negative size of 16 x 20 inches [41 x 51 cm]. In 1999, in San Francisco, I knocked out the wall of my kitchen to make it into a camera obscura. At some point I felt I needed to shoot outside so I built the giant 30 x 40 camera. It took a year and a half. I could intervene inside the camera. It was controlled chaos. I built my New York camera after experimenting in the city. It has a four-foot [122 cm] focal length but the pictures have the feel of street photographs shot with a 50 mm lens.

DAMN°: Your photos from San Francisco seemed almost normal. But something was different; it was like seeing through alien eyes, clear but colour tinged, with a strange light.

W56th Street at 9th Avenue, West, 2016 Negative chromogenic photograph
9th Avenue at W18th Street, 2015 Negative chromogenic photograph
JC: What attracted me about San Francisco was both the landscape (the city is built on hills so there are many viewpoints) and the light. It is constantly changing, so you can return to the same place multiple times and you won’t see it the same way. But what you describe is the effect I want. I want people to see not a distortion but an image that feels like what they know, more like a memory.

DAMN°: And the idea to shoot one-of-a-kind negatives on paper?

JC: There was something about the negative, especially in certain urban settings, that allowed me to give the subliminal ideals a voice. To bring them out. For example, in Oakland I photographed a modernist sculpture that was rusty and covered with graffiti. Nobody looks at it anymore; it’s a relic but it won’t be taken down. It struck me as representative of a whole set of modernist ideals that still operate in the midst of this devastated landscape. Shooting in the negative seemed to emphasise the ideal character of this old aspiration.

DAMN°: Was it that modernist optimism, now so compromised, that brought you to New York?

JC: The idea of modernist purity and perfection is gone from art but it is still claimed by architecture, so yes. But it was more that New York was a challenge I knew I had to take on. I mean, do people actually photograph seriously there anymore? You could photograph a gutter and everyone would know that it’s New York. I did not want to hide behind irony. I wanted to avoid clichés and make the series truly about New York. What I found was that the ordinary became transformed in the large negative images. That process draws things out. Gradations of light become geometric forms and start to glow. The pho- tos are electric but without the obvious noise and bustle of the city. They convey the energy.

DAMN°: What about security? These days, any- one photographing on the street is suspect. Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters is a wonderful sight, but shooting it is just the sort of thing to get you noticed.

JC: Actually, it’s probably a little easier to photograph in a big city with a giant camera because we look like guys moving equipment. With the Gehry building, we made the mistake of leaning our backs against the glass, which goes all the way to the ground. It spoiled the building’s perfection. The security people said to us: “Don’t ever-ever do that.”

DAMN°: It’s interesting that you’ve focused on unconventional buildings, like apartment buildings in Brooklyn. Are you consciously avoiding the big- ticket items, the greatest hits?

JC: I stay away from iconic structures until I have something to bring to them. In Los Angeles, I couldn’t do the ocean until I had the realisation that it was a kind of desert. I tried to shoot at Ground Zero, but the security there is so intense that even if they didn’t know what I was doing, the need for a long exposure guaranteed that I would be confront- ed. I tried to get 40 seconds, but with no luck, and then one of the officers came over and said: “These are the rules, but I have some discretion here. Take your picture.” It’s possible that at some point I may do the Flatiron building. But I’m not ready yet.

This article appeared in DAM57. Order your personal copy.
107th Street at Broadway, Variation B, 2015 Two-negative chromogenic photograph
Ishi at Yuba, 2015 Image on Ilfochrome paper
Starr King at Coral, North West, 2014 Image on Ilfochrome paper