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Laguna Beach

 Volume 11, Issue 92  | November 15, 2019


Mark Chamberlain: Photographer, gallery owner,

artivist, arteologist - one of Laguna’s great treasures

Story by MARRIE STONE

In 1969, after his discharge from the war, Mark Chamberlain drove west. He packed his 1963 MG Midget with cameras and optimism. Dubuque, Iowa faded in the rearview mirror. Mark drove away from a childhood battle with polio and a year spent in Korea during the Vietnam War that had profoundly changed the trajectory of his life. Ahead was Laguna Beach, the town that would become not only his lifelong home, but the inspiration for a career in environmental activism and a literal canvas for his photography.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mark Chamberlain, 2018

 “Meaningful art,” Mark says, “always has an autobiographical connection.” I spend the next hours with Mark, along with his partner and art journalist Liz Goldner, unspooling those long threads of connections. We travel through his childhood and the war, from his 1970s retrospective on his hometown, Dubuque Passages, to his current book, The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism, due out this year.

Mark calls himself an “arteologist” and an “artivist.” He uses his camera to excavate truth and to document humanity’s devastating impact on the environment. In one notable project, he photographed “Future Fossils” – those modern-day objects in our contemporary culture he imagines will soon be extinct: gas stations, automobiles, glitzy steel buildings and billboards, the gaudy super-color sprawl of urban landscapes. 

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Photo by Mark Chamberlain

Photographer: Last Boxcar to Dubuque, from Mark’s Passages series

But I’m interested in a different kind of study with Mark. And so, together, we embark on a conversational dig of our own, excavating the roots of Mark’s past and chronicling all the artistic fruits that emerged. 

How a childhood disease led to an enduring desire

Mark contracted polio when he was in the fifth grade. His mother, not one to accept common fate, employed unconventional (and controversial) methods to help her son. The therapy was arduous and painful, but it worked. Mark credits his mother’s strength and dedication for his full recovery, and for his feminist attitudes today. 

Still, Mark was bedridden for a year. During that time he read... and read... and read. He discovered Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and, specifically, riverboats. From this came a lifelong passion to own a riverboat and traverse the Mississippi River.

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Photo courtesy BC Space

Adventurer: Mississippi River Queen, 1959

Mark emerged from his recovery stronger than his peers. He learned to swim in the mighty Mississippi that, of course, flowed right through Dubuque. His father had little choice but to buy Mark what he calls his first “magic carpet,” a 15 1/2-foot flatboat.  

To date, Mark has made his way down one-third of the Mississippi. He owns a 1959 shallow draft steel-hulled 25-foot houseboat with an outboard motor that can carry him through 12 inches of silted water. “Most people can’t even find the places I go,” Mark says. “It takes knowledge, which I have. And maps, which I also have.” Many hidden areas have been sealed off because railroads destroyed river traffic, Mark tells me. The currents silted them in, making the river impossible to navigate. But Mark has winches and tools – and determination.

Mark uses his boat as a shooting platform, giving him access to very tight and isolated river communities. “People tell me their stories. I have videos and photographs.” He anticipates this will make an incredible project. 

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Photo by Mark Chamberlain

Photographer: Mrs. Pillard, 1973, from Dubuque Passages

His desire to finish the final two-thirds is palpable. “Would you say you have any regrets in life?” his partner, Liz, asks. “Not finishing the Mississippi,” he says. “That would be my one.”

The unexpected blessings of Vietnam

Two days after Mark received his master’s degree in Operations Research from the University of Iowa, he was drafted. Though, through a series of lucky breaks, he was deployed to Korea instead of Vietnam. There he taught himself the language, as well as Korean culture and history, which ingratiated him to the locals. 

“I watched these 17 and 18-year old kids come in. They drank, gambled and whored.” Because the United States used Korea as a way station back to civilian life, many men were broken from time spent in Vietnam. “You could watch their lives change dramatically.” Mark was 24, on the older side of the draft, and a little wiser about life. He used that year as an opportunity, discovering photography and finding a Korean mentor to hone his craft. He had access to a Jeep and little need for sleep. In his free time, Mark documented his experiences, touring the country, talking to locals, and giving himself an education far more valuable than the one he received at home.

By the time he returned to Dubuque, Mark found himself deeply changed. His father had passed while he was away. “I didn’t have a home there anymore,” Mark says. “I didn’t agree with anything I was seeing.” Mark’s degree felt like a vestigial remnant of a life he no longer recognized. And so, camera in hand, Mark set out west to reinvent himself.

A partnership becomes a brotherhood

A few years after Mark arrived in Laguna, he met Jerry Burchfield. The two became instant friends. “Encountering Jerry under the circumstances I did was a meaningful passage,” Mark says. Jerry was an only child, Mark an only son. The two forged a kind of brotherhood they each were missing. Mark says Jerry is one of the only friends to whom he gave his early photographs from Korea. Although they were quite different, they shared a passion for photography, an interest in activism, and both felt changed by the war.

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Photo by Damon Nicholson

Jerry & Mark at the Nix Interpretive Center. On the left, an image from The Tell mural, leading into the trail. As part of their 25th anniversary celebration, the Nix Center will host a book signing of Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism.

Together they co-founded The Laguna Canyon Project, The Legacy Project and BC Space Gallery, perhaps one of the longest continually running fine art photography galleries in the United States.

Although Jerry passed in 2009, there almost seems a soulful residue imprinted on Mark. He sometimes speaks of Jerry as if he’s still alive, at one point saying, “Jerry has a photograph from those days.” It makes me think, as I listen to Mark talk about Jerry, that’s how brotherhood should be – each absorbing the best of the other, and allowing them to live on.

Saving Laguna Canyon, one photo at a time

Longtime Laguna locals know Mark’s work well, even if they don’t realize it. Mark and Jerry were instrumental in saving Laguna Canyon from development by the Irvine Company. The Laguna Canyon Project spanned 30 years, and included one of Mark’s most ambitious projects to date: The Tell. 

Stretching 636 feet and rising 34 feet into the canyon sky, The Tell was a massive installation of photographs gathered from hundreds of community members in 1989. “No photograph was censored,” Mark smiles. “Though some had to be placed up high.” 

Its shape was meant to mirror the surrounding landscape, although it had a definitive head (representing Easter Island, and the inhabitants destruction of their own civilization) and a tail that trailed to the ground. The mural in many ways represented both the land and the creatures that roamed it. More important, it called people into the canyon. First, to search for their own photos. Then to commune with nature. And, finally, to take an active role in saving it.

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Photo courtesy BC Space

Artivist: The Tell overview, 1989

As the sun scorched the project and the hostile environment invaded, something new appeared. Where once the focus was on individual pictures and people, Mark and Jerry designed the mural so images of animals would emerge when the photographs faded – a dinosaur, a giant deer, people feuding inside the belly of a beast. 

“That’s part of the deceit of the piece,” says Mark. “If art isn’t entertaining to the artist, why do it?” They drew on the power of myths, archeological principles, and the history of Easter Island to play with the art and make a broader statement about the environment. “At the dedication ceremony, we had horsemen from Leisure World walk out from the throat. Men delivered speeches on scrolls of parchment. We tapped into every myth we could.” 

Mark calls his work a tricky seduction, his art operating on every part of the viewer’s conscious and unconscious mind. That’s the power of both myth and scale.

The Tell was dismantled in 1990. The skin came off first, Mark tells me. Then the skeleton came down. “Then the cross members were removed, so it became like Tellhenge for another two weeks.” Much of its remains were destroyed in the 1993 fire. Mark confesses it felt like a relief, the project almost a burden to keep alive. It died in much the way it was born – mythologically.

When asked if he would do it again, Mark says he’s guided by the principle that a project done once is art, and a project repeated is product.

The Great Picture – living life on a large canvas

Inspired by the success of the Laguna Canyon Project, Mark and Jerry turned their attention to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, and to documenting the 4,700 acres of contiguous space in Irvine that would become Orange County’s Great Park. From that, The Great Picture arose. 

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Photo courtesy BC Space

Historian: The Great Picture

Three stories tall and 11 stories wide, the Great Picture is the world’s largest photograph made as a single seam image. By converting a jet maintenance hanger into a camera obscura, they achieved the exposure by creating a 6-millimeter pinhole lens projected onto a muslin canvas. Following a 35-minute exposure, the crew captured a black-and-white image that they processed in a pool-sized developing tray. The gelatin silver print portrays the control tower structures, tarmac and the distant San Joaquin Hills.

Breaking the Guinness World Record, and shown around the world, the image remains both a wonder and a masterpiece.

BC Space – the mouse that roared

As our time wraps up, we discover we haven’t discussed the gallery. BC Space, nestled beside the Candy Baron and above Violet’s Boutique on Forest Avenue, is hard to spot even if you know it’s there. There’s no advertising, barely a sign of any kind. 

Sometime after buying the gallery, Mark discovered the space used to be owned by the Masons. “The interesting thing about the Masons,” says Mark, “you had to ask to join. They didn’t invite you. You had to want to know more.” That’s the guiding philosophy behind BC Space. “I prefer to talk to people who know where they’re going,” he says. “You don’t walk in here by accident. If you make it up the stairs, you want to be here.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

BC Space: “If you make it up the stairs, you want to be here”

Like everything in Mark’s life, he continues to have big ambitions for the space. “There are so many things I want to do here,” he says. “Every show has been curated from here, generated from here. Usually in response to some current event, or long-term recurring situation.” 

Self-invention or self-discovery?

“I don’t think we invent anything,” Mark says as we conclude our time. “Instead I think we discover things.” 

I consider this long after I leave. 

Then there are the words of his partner, Liz, who seems so moved by Mark that it’s her reaction to him, as much as the man himself, that leaves a lasting impression. 

“Over our years together, I keep asking him, ‘What makes you, you?’ ‘How did you get to be this person?’” 

Mark smiles and shrugs as Liz asks again. 

“With all these insights, and passions, and emotional and intellectual understandings. How did that happen?” Liz keeps looking at him, as though waiting for an answer. “To have the confidence to do the crazy things you did. To have the confidence to save the canyon.” 

Mark sits silent. 

“I guess it’s just his DNA”

“I guess it’s just his DNA,” she finally concludes. 

So maybe it’s true of people too: we don’t invent ourselves, but rather discover ourselves. We’re there all along, living fossils waiting to be excavated. 

Perhaps that’s why art feels so gratifying and so personal. By creating something, we’re really discovering something about ourselves. We’re shining a light on those profound parts of our soul, digging them up and bringing ourselves to the surface, letting others see inside. 

Looking at the long arc of Mark’s work – across distance and time, and almost always larger than life – that’s just how it feels. Profound.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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