Swimming Pool Project Space is proud to present an exhibition of photographs by John Chiara and Sean McFarland, two distinctive artists based in San Francisco. Although deeply informed by their place on the West Coast, Chiara and McFarland both revamp landscape photography as a kind of alchemy, using inventive, experimental processes to produce transformed views that speak to the imagination as much as the facts.
Chiara drives around with immense, hand-built cameras, the largest mounted on a flat-bed trailer, to create unique Cibachrome prints that are veiled in ethereal color or heavy darkness. McFarland melds digital collage with unconventional uses of black-and-white Polaroid film to create powerfully condensed visions of ominous mountain valleys and isolated forces of nature. In the end, the two artists’ mysterious or mirage-like landscapes have less to do with particular places than the ways we experience the world outside — whether physically, in memories, or through the many images we come across on a daily basis.
Chiara and McFarland’s works reflect both a feeling of natural wonder and a sensitivity to the increasingly mediated aspects of our lives today. Neither artist could create these particular images using standard photographic methods and equipment so they painstakingly devised their own. Yet if their practices intersect in some respects, they diverge in many others, not least of all in their formal choices. The differences, however, bring into relief the artists’ alternate approaches to subjects such as presence and absence, human relationships with the natural environment, and the photograph’s existence as both an image and object.
For the ongoing series Land’s End, John Chiara exposes sheets of photographic paper inside his colossal, hand-made cameras without using a negative. He visualizes the composition intuitively, but makes on-the-fly interventions with his hands during the exposure. The fogging, disruptions, and color effects that stem from his process distance the final image from the view on location, while underlining the print’s material qualities and the artist’s involvement. At the same time, Chiara’s vantage point is limited by where he can drive and park — sometimes pavement fills the foreground of the image — binding up his photographs with the city’s infrastructure, the paths laid out in this environment. In Chiara’s view, his works are as much dynamic records of a photographic event as they are atmospheric translations of his surroundings.
In Pictures of the Earth, Sean McFarland depicts natural phenomena and places that he himself couldn’t have witnessed, physically or geographically. Working from a substantial pool of photographs (some his own, others from published sources), McFarland digitally pieces together these pared-down, archetypal images from disparate parts. He then reshoots them as small black-and-white Polaroids, toiling with the imprecise medium at length to achieve the desired look and feeling. If photography is supposedly a matter of being in the right place at the right time, McFarland echoes how our minds form mental images, or even false memories, of things we’ve only seen in pictures. Yet, as pocket-sized Polaroids, the works offer a certain reassurance that they were taken on site and off-the-cuff, developing in that familiar way as soon as the camera spit them out.