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Carl Chiarenza Audio Tour Transcript

300. Introduction

Hi, my name’s Will Green, and I’m the curator of the exhibition Carl Chiarenza: Journey into the Unknown

I first came across Chiarenza’s work while studying at Rochester Institute of Technology, where a massive, 14-foot wide photograph by him is on permanent display in the lobby of the Frank E. Gannett Building. This photograph was different than any that I’d ever seen before. It didn’t depict a person, a place, or any other subject matter that I could easily recognize. At first glance, it appeared to be little more than a disorganized array of various textures, shapes, and tonal values. Yet as I passed by it each day on my way to class, this photograph began to make more sense. I started to notice the subtle ways Chiarenza repeated certain shapes and textures over the horizontal plane of the picture, and how he deftly balanced light and dark tonal values to construct a composition that was, the more I looked, surprisingly harmonious. In short, as I became more and more familiar with this particular photograph, it became more and more interesting to look at. 

I hope that you’ll be able to slow down and take time to explore the works on display in this exhibition. Follow along with this audio tour as we learn more about Carl Chiarenza, his photographs, and what makes them so special.

This audio is made up of clips from interviews Chiarenza did in 2000, 2008, and 2019. I’d like to thank Brooks Jensen of Lenswork magazine, Gabriella Chiarenza, and Steve Osemwenkhae for providing this audio.

301. Early Work

Carl Chiarenza was born in Rochester, New York, on September 5th, 1935. He picked up his first camera around the age of eight, and throughout his adolescence, photography and music were his main passions. Here’s Chiarenza recalling a funny story about his early efforts in photography during an interview with his daughter, Gabriella, in 2019:

The playground master—in those days we had a person in the playground—had himself an interest in photography, so he encouraged us young people to play with cameras. And some of us would do that, and I did that, and then went home and eventually made a darkroom in the attic where I processed film and made prints. And when I was developing film one day, I had the tank in the sink in the bathroom on the second floor underneath the attic and I was running water to wash the film—and I got the faucet going in such a way that it would go into the tank, move out of the tank in a way that kept it flowing regularly. And I went across the street to make some more negatives in the playground. And when I came back one day I got into real trouble, because the moving water changed its course and overflowed the sink and went down to the first floor—which caused me to have some issues with my father!

Source: Gabriella Chiarenza Interview (December 20, 2019)

302. RIT

Carl Chiarenza was a member of the second class to graduate from the newly-established bachelor of fine arts program in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. His classmates included well-known photographers Bruce Davidson, Kenneth Josephson, Pete Turner, and Jerry Uelsmann. In an interview with LensWork magazine editor Brooks Jensen from 2000, Chiarenza discusses the dual influences of Minor White and Ralph Hattersley, two prominent faculty members at RIT during the mid-1950s:

Now in the photo thing, as this program is developing, Hattersley was the person—of the teachers we had Hattersley was the person who was directly involved with putting the program together. Minor came into the program when he moved to Rochester and Eastman House, so he came in part-time. Anyway, as the classes got going over the two-year period, we would be bouncing back and forth between Minor and Ralph. So the wonderful thing about this was that we didn't get stuck with a single track. We were not under Minor White, we were not under Ralph Hattersley. We would go to minor and we would learn the Zone System—and how to stare at a picture for an hour and really digest that picture detail by detail, you might say silver halide by silver halide. At the time, we all sorta thought he was really nuts, I mean having us sit there for an hour looking at these pictures, but again, as we’ve all said in retrospect, that was a major part of our education—what a picture is and how you deal with that, particularly in photography, where photographers generally see a subject or an object and say, “Oh, that’s nice, I’m going to make a picture of that,” whether its people or a lamp or whatever it is, and don’t really think about what’s going on behind it, in front of it, to the left of it, to the right of it, and so on. So we really learned to understand that photography, like any other picture, is made up of everything that’s in it. And everything that’s in it is important. On the other hand we went to Ralph and Ralph would say, ‘Well, what’s in the darkroom trash this morning? Is there anything interesting that we can pull out and start with?’ These would be prints that had stains on them that could be developed further. I know this sounds extreme, but it happened! Or he would take us on field trips to New York. We went to New York and we spent a couple days at LIFE magazine meeting people like Eisenstaedt and Margaret Bourke-White and meeting people and going through the whole building, the labs and meeting the layout people and so on. And we would go back to RIT with negatives that he had gotten for us from LIFE magazine and we experimented with them to see if we could do something different from what LIFE did. Or we went to Chicago and we met the people at ID, Callahan and Siskind, and learned about an entirely different way of teaching photography. We walked into—I guess it was the Mees building or Gropius building, I can’t remember—and as we were walking up toward the photo department, up the stairway, and we heard this terrific jazz going on. We make it up a stairway, up a landing, and there’s Chico Hamilton quartet playing, live, in the middle of this space. It wasn’t a concert, it was just in the middle of the building. So it was experiences like that that really opened us up to all kinds of creative worlds. 

Source: LensWork Interview (2000)

303. Early Landscape Details

During his early years, Carl Chiarenza started moving closer and closer to his subjects, resulting in photographs that looked more and more abstract. Here he is discussing that transition with LensWork magazine editor Brooks Jensen in 2000:

Well, when I started making serious photographs, after I got through with the photojournalism stuff and got back on some kind of track, I was really trying to work in the tradition of Minor [White] and Edward [Weston] and Ansel [Adams]. And I used to go out daily with Paul Caponigro—we lived together for a while—and we would go out to various parts of New England and photograph. He would always come back with wonderful landscape pictures and I would always come back with mosquito bites… and halfway decent pictures. But, you know, it took a long time for me to understand that that was not where I was going to be able to function, in terms of expressing what I needed to express. Because I didn't know any other way, there was no other way open to me but that tradition I inherited. So until I found myself getting smaller and smaller and smaller in terms of the parts of the world that I was looking at and closer and closer and closer that I began to understand that I wasn’t really interested in this landscape as a picture. Though I loved the landscape, it wasn’t that that was my picture. So I began making pictures that were smaller and smaller, more and more abstract

Source: LensWork Interview (2000)

304. Into the Studio

Carl Chiarenza began working in the studio in 1979. His decision to move his artistic practice indoors was prompted by a chance invitation from the Polaroid Corporation to experiment with their massive 20 x 24-inch studio camera. In a 2008 interview with LensWork magazine editor Brooks Jensen, Chiarenza explains the circumstances behind this important transition:

The thing that happened in 1979 which caused me to change from outdoors to indoors—or from using things that existed in the world to making things that had not existed before—was because of Polaroid. When I, along with a half a dozen other people, were invited to test the new 20x24 camera, I was thrilled with the idea, but I had no idea what to do because I’d never brought things to the camera before. I spent a week using up a lot of their film (and therefore a lot of money that wasn’t mine) making pictures which I thought were pretty terrible because I had no idea how to do that. I was trying to do still lifes, but abstract still lifes. And it wasn’t working, and furthermore, they were in color because color was the only material they had in the first years of that camera. And since I can’t really work in color, that was the problem. But the major problem was how in the hell do you bring something to the camera—unless it’s a portrait and you do an ad or a regular still life. So that was the beginning of making collages. As I said, the stuff I made there in that first week with that camera were pretty horrible—and two things emerged from that: One, I shouldn’t try to do color. Two, I had to figure out how to make something that was related to what I wanted to see in a picture. 

Source: LensWork Interview (2008)

305. Working Method

In the studio, Carl Chiarenza works intuitively by following his instincts and seeing where they might lead him. Chiarenza discusses his daily routine with LensWork editor Brooks Jensen: 

I go into the studio and I do everything I can to avoid getting started—that’s part of the ritual, I have no control over it—I’ve just finally figured it out, that’s just what happens: I go in and I do all sorts of stuff—I turn the radio on, I make coffee, decide which music I’m going to listen to, answer the phone, check the email. I mean, it takes an hour for me to get settled in. And then I literally go to my table, which is just covered with stuff and I just at random pick something and start playing with pieces of paper to see if something comes together. More often than not, I keep throwing these things away and throwing things away and starting over and starting over and then I get something that I think is going to begin to work. Then I start by making an exposure, change the lights, change the configurations and keep doing that, making prints and laying them out on the table and watching them develop—develop in terms of what the picture is. I keep responding to what I am seeing and let that determine what I should do next. So the materials and the picture themselves tell me what to do.

Source: LensWork Interview (2000)

306. Take vs. Make

Carl Chiarenza is very sensitive to the language that we use when discussing photography. Here he is in 2019 discussing the critical difference between taking and making a photograph:

Well, one of the things about the history of photography is the words that have been used since the beginning, and since the beginning there has been this notion of “taking” something, “capturing” something, or “shooting” something! And none of those words seem to make any sense to me, and that’s partly because some people before me asked these questions. Like Ansel Adams, for example, said, “I don’t take a picture, I make a picture.” And I couldn’t agree more. I don’t take, I make.

Source: Gabriella Chiarenza Interview (December 20, 2019)

307. Pictures come from pictures

Throughout his career as both a photographer and as a professor of Art History, Carl Chiarenza has argued that pictures come from other pictures. By this he means that we are influenced by all of the pictures we’ve seen before andwhether consciously or unconsciouslywe use them as models when we create pictures of our own. Chiarenza elaborates on this idea in a 2008 interview with LensWork editor Brooks Jensen:

The whole idea of pictures coming from pictures—is in my career both as a photographer and historian—has always been central to my thinking about picture-making, and photography in particular. And more my work more particularly. In the past when I taught for some 30 years, I would start every class—no matter what the period or theme was, whether it was Renaissance art or medieval art, twentieth-century art or photography—the first class would always involve cave pictures and we would have this discuss that we don’t know where those pictures came from. There are a lot of theories about it, but obviously, the cave people didn’t write anything down, so all we have are the pictures and our assumptions about ceremonies, about animals—either taking care of the spirit of the animals or... Anyway my point--before I go too far adrift!—is that it seems to be that those are the first pictures that we know about. And if we talk about what’s happened since, from my point of view, pictures have always come out of the picture making that started there. Which is to say it has something to with something that is very personal, that is communal, that is time specific, that refers to what they used to call the zeitgeist, and that every generation, it seems to me, reflects on what came before, either negatively or positively, and develops from that. So I don’t say there’s a progression or an evolution or development, but it seems to me that we always, whether we’re thinking consciously about it or not, If we’re making pictures, we can’t avoid that history that’s within us from looking, if not making.

Source: LensWork Interview (2008)

308. Landscape

The landscape remained one of Carl Chiarenza’s main interests even after he entered the studio in 1979 and took his work indoors. In an interview with his daughter, Gabriella, Chiarenza explains his evolving idea of landscape.

I always liked being outdoors in the landscape pictorially-speaking, because I liked looking at landscape and the things that nature put together and made interesting to look at, but I never liked being outdoors, physically, because even as a child I had trouble with heat and sunstroke. So while I was working with collages in the studio, I guess I started trying to make my own landscapes. So some of the collages I made were in fact inspired by landscape ideas or visions that I imagined, that could be made with paper and especially torn paper, to give a sense of a landscape moving across the surface. So a lot of the work that I was doing in those days—and still—have a reflection of my interest in landscape, which I couldn’t do physically.

Source: Gabriella Chiarenza Interview (December 20, 2019)

309. Peace Warriors

In a recent interview with his daughter Gabriella, Chiarenza had this to say about his series The Peace Warriors of Two Thousand and Three:

Well, the most obvious set of work I did that was directly impacted by what was going on in the world was during the war in Iraq , and I was very upset about what was going on there—I always had trouble with wars—so I started a series of pictures which ended up being called, “The Peace Warriors of 2003.” They were still abstractions made out of collages, but with some reference to military people and equipment and stuff, and fortunately, Nazraeli Press thought that was an interesting idea and decided to publish a portfolio book of that material. And that’s one of the very few times where I made references from abstraction to reality—“reality.” But I was so upset with that war that that motivated me to make those pictures.

Source: Gabriella Chiarenza Interview (December 20, 2019)

310. Viewing Chiarenza’s work

There is no correct or incorrect way to experience a photograph by Carl Chiarenza. He has long insisted that viewing his images is a personal and open-ended experience. Here’s Chiarenza in an interview from 2019 explaining what it is he hopes you, the viewer, might gain from looking carefully at his work:

I only hope that the viewer can find her or his own something in what I make, and I have said this over and over again, that the pictures are made to be responded to in any way that is personal to the person looking at it and responding to it. I’m not trying to persuade people to do anything. I don’t photograph as many of the great photographers like my schoolmate Bruce Davidson—I don’t do that kind of thing—not because I don’t like doing that kind of thing, but because I’m not very good at it, and he is. So, what I’m doing is responding to things the way composers respond to sound, and hoping that there are people out there who will be affected by it in some way that affects them personally and has nothing to do with me, but has something to do with what they get out of the picture.

Source: Gabriella Chiarenza Interview (December 20, 2019)