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Carl Chiarenza

“A photograph presents the artist and the viewer with a challenge, because we always want to know what it is—as if the photograph were not there. For over 165 years, an extraordinary number of forces have made us instinctively believe that photographs are windows on reality—even when reason tells us otherwise.”

— Carl Chiarenza, 2013 lecture excerpt


A photograph of you is not you. It is, in fact, an illusion.

That simple viewpoint is perhaps the cornerstone of famed photographer Carl Chiarenza's body of work—and his role as a mentor to other artists.

“It's not unreasonable for people who are interested in photography to accept what has been broadcast since the 1830s, which is that the photograph captures reality, actuality,” Carl says.

"Mulligan Print," by Carl Chiarenza. Carl's work has been shown around the world and can be found in the collections of more than 50 museums, including The Getty Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

“From my point of view, it never did that. Every photograph is an abstraction.”

That perspective has so informed his work, he avoids some of the most common terms found in photography. Carl doesn't say “shoot.” Or “capture.” Or even “take.”

“Those words describe something that photography doesn't really do,” he says.

“You open your wallet and you show your friends a picture, and you say, 'this is my daughter.' Well, it's not your daughter in any shape or form,” he says. “You're connecting with an optical illusion, a representation of reality.”

Now showing

His newest artistic exploration is now on display at Rochester Contemporary Art Center—RoCo—through March 16. It's collection of photographic collages unlike anything Carl has produced in the past. Each is one of a kind.

The exhibit—Makers & Mentors—has become an annual project for RoCo in which the center exhibits an artist's work alongside the work of people he's influenced. Three artists join Carl for the show.

A Rochester native, Carl has made this town the center of his large and mysterious universe, full of abstract work. For fifty years, he's produced abstract photography shown in the world's most respected galleries and collected by major museums.

And along the way, he's taught thousands as a professor whose signature style is to challenge, to encourage, to question, and to learn as much from his students as he does from them. He retired from his most recent teaching gig—University of Rochester—in 2000.

“I've been very fortunate to have had students who appreciated my way of teaching,” Carl says. “They learned from me. I learned From them. Challenge. Argue. Research. Question. That's what I wanted from students.”


Maker meets mentor, after 40 years

Fellow Makers & Mentors artist Lisa Bradley, of New York City, met Carl in 1970 when she took a course in History of Photography with him at Boston University. The Makers & Mentors exhibit opening was the first time they were reunited face to face since her college days.

“I was painting and making photographs during this period, and he was known as a great professor,” Lisa says. “While his work didn't influence my art, he incalculably helped to shape my development as an artist by his belief in me and by his encouraging me to follow my own vision.”

Carl thought enough of Lisa's work that he wrote a recommendation for her when she 21. She's saved it ever since. It reads, in part:

"Lisa Bradley is an exceptional human being. Whatever she encounters she encounters poetically, creatively,and perhaps more importantly with compassion, patience, and understanding. She is a gifted, natural artist ... The paintings are about human existence, the marshaling of forces that are strong and self-sustaining, and yet humble before a larger dominant power..."

"Through This," by Lisa Bradley. Lisa is a celebrated abstract painter who's worked and exhibited in New York City for many years. She studied the History of Photography with Chiarenza during her time at Boston University. Bradley grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and has lived and worked in New York City since the mid-1970s.And in the ensuing years, Lisa's art has been described as metaphysical, incorporating a full range of emotions into her work for her audience to connect to. When asked about some of the most fulfilling reactions from audiences that she's encountered, she describes one at an exhibit of her work in Finland.

“A woman was so moved that she wept in front of my painting,” Lisa says.

That artistic "it" factor

Though they work in different artistic mediums and there's little comparison in terms of creative influence, Carl served Lisa well as a mentor in the sense of encouraging her to develop her own work.

“Like my own work, it's an expression of her being,” Carl says. “I do not think there is any direct inspiration from her work to mine any more than there is from mine to hers.”

No doubt the best artists have an “it” factor—those same people usually have a rare talent for connecting with humanity. As a painter. As a photographer. As a mentor.

“When I sent Carl copies of the original of what he had written about my work,” says Lisa, “he wrote back 'I always knew you had it.' What is this mysterious 'it' that artists recognize in each others work, and is clearly in Carl's work? It's what my art dealer Hollis Taggart would call the 'sublime' in art. This is what Chiarenza has, and by the force of his personality is able to express both in his art and his teaching.”

“Everyone who has crossed his path is lucky for it.”

A concrete truth about an abstract artist. 

See more: Carl Chiarenza's website

Say hi: Contact RoCo


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Rochester Contemporary Art Center's Makers & Mentors exhibition celebrates the artwork and influence of Carl Chiarenza. His new works are on display alongside three other artists who credit him with strongly encouraging them in their work—Lisa Bradley, of New York City; Bruno Chalifour, of Rochester; and David Haas, of Allentown, PA. The show runs through March 16, and will be open during Rochester's monthly First Friday gallery outing March 7 from 6 p.m. To 10 p.m. For details, call 585-461-2222 or visit


Watch a recent conversation with Carl Chiarenza marking the Makers & Mentors exhibit. The interview was conducted by writer Rebecca Rafferty; Rochester Contemporary Art Center's Bleu Cease; and Heidi Katz, Carl's wife. Video by Ben Gonyo.