Inside the Artist’s Studio with Carl Chiarenza

Representation, as I use the word, does not mean documentary of the natural, social world. It does not refer to specific times and places.  Representation refers to how photographic syntax allows and restricts–how it frames the visual transformation of what is seen from the vantage point of the camera’s lens.

Acropolis Revisited 300, 2010

Acropolis Revisited 300, 2010

I’m interested in how what is in front of my lens comes together into a new object–how the photograph causes a genuinely real but fresh experience which did not exist before its appearance. The word “representation” is about photography’s way of transforming the supposed reality of things, as opposed to photography reproducing or tracing the world. A photograph may be used to represent the unknown, the mysterious, or invisible as much as it may be used to represent the known and visible.  It can be used for both prose and poetry where metaphors may dominate the viewer’s response and second thoughts may override the immediate response.

A photograph presents both artist and viewer with a challenge, because we want to know the subject depicted–as if the photograph were not there.  For over 165 years an extraordinary number of forces have led us to believe photographs are windows on reality, even when reason tells us otherwise.  We share photos of our children and say “this is my daughter”, as if the photograph were not there. We fail to recognize that while a photograph is different from other kinds of pictures it is still a picture. Therefore, it is characteristically different from what was in front of the lens.

Untitled 297, 2010

Untitled 297, 2010

Instead of trying to hide photography’s special characteristics of transformation in an illusion of material reality, I try to expose and exploit them. I underline the fact that the viewer is seeing an abstraction, a picture rather than actual events, as in the pictures in this exhibition.  Of course, individual picturemakers and picture users have their own ways of transformation, and today’s digital tools just compound those possibilities.

A Carl Chiarenza photograph in Fifty Landscapes, the current exhibition at Main Street Arts

A Carl Chiarenza photograph in Fifty Landscapes, the current exhibition at Main Street Arts

Even without considering the digital revolution, the difference between photography and reality is central to my thinking.  In the case of the media photograph (For example, the widely published image issued by the Bolivian government as evidence of the capture and death of Che Guevera, 1960s revolutionary) this difference can have serious consequences for our understanding of political and social events. How can we know the true relationship between the photograph and the actual facts about Che? This is also seen in the ongoing debate over facts and images of events in the Middle East. The issue of difference in my work has an additional wrinkle: how to hold the viewer’s attention beyond the initial frustrating attempt to decipher “what it is”. The problem is how to get the viewer to abandon their belief in the photograph as window, to bring them through the window to a new and unique visual event rather than an illusion of one that already occurred.

My photographs are made from collages which I construct specifically to be photographed in black and white. This process creates form and subject simultaneously. The collages are means to an end and are discarded once the photographs are completed. The photographs do not look like the collages from which they were made. They are transformations which refer to and represent visual sensations which I know only from a mix of past encounters with other pictures, music, the world, dreams, and fantasies.

The studio and darkroom are like scientists’ laboratories.  Artist and scientist both tinker with the known in search of the unknown. Both have a desire to see realities never before seen.  That desire motivates my work. I set myself free to explore the  photographic picture potential of the process itself, encouraging chance, accident, and discovery.

Noumenon 148, 1987

Noumenon 148, 1987

As Albert Einstein said, “One of the most beautiful things we can experience is the mysterious… It is the source of all true science and art. He who can no longer pause to wonder is as good as dead.”

My commitment is to exploring how little we know compared to how much we think we know, and to how little we know compared to how much we feel.  To make photographs which could convey such enigmas is my continuing obsession.

Stop by Main Street Arts to see Carl’s artwork in our current exhibition, Fifty Landscapes (runs through May 13). View his work online at www.carlchiarenza.com. Take a look at our previous Inside the Artist’s Studio blog post by painter Meredith Mallwitz.

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