As ‘The Great Picture’ returns home, its creators look back on the monumental project

Creators and photographers Clayton Spada, left, and Jacques Garnier.
Creators and photographers Clayton Spada and Jacques Garnier, from left, lean on the crate holding one of the world’s largest processed photos, “The Great Picture,” at the Great Park in Irvine on Friday. The picture was exposed using one of the old airplane hangers as a pinhole camera.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A photographic marvel has returned home, as a monumental project known as “The Great Picture” will be a featured exhibition at the Great Park in Irvine for a third time.

Following the decommissioning of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in 1999, a group of six artists and photographers came together to form a collaboration they would call the Legacy Project.

Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Rob Johnson, Douglas McCulloh and Clayton Spada set out to document as much as they could of the 4,800-acre military base.

Four of the Legacy Project members taught in the photo department at Cypress College, including the late Burchfield, who lobbied to give students access to the base and document it as it went through a transition.

A photo of an earlier photo taken of "The Great Picture" on display at the Great Park in Irvine.
A photo of an earlier photo taken of “The Great Picture” shows the size of the project on display at the Great Park in Irvine.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Very quickly, it became apparent to us that this shouldn’t be a one-off thing,” Spada, who along with Chamberlain and Johnson had joined Burchfield in the initial exercise of taking students onto the base, said. “There was a significance to this base. It was so much a part of Orange County history that we felt that we had to document this thing.

“We wanted to do a long-term, basically open-ended project to document this space as it was then, and as it would change to whatever it became — whether it was Great Park or another airport or whatever.”

The Great Park and housing developments now dominate the site. Largely unrecognizable from what it once was, Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was captured in extensive photo sessions over the course of 15 years.

Several projects came into being during this work. At one point, the six shot a picture in each of the cardinal directions every 60 feet they walked together. They also took pictures of the approximately 1,800 buildings on the base.

Clayton Spada stands next to "The Great Picture," rolled inside the crate, he and his team exposed and processed.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“The Great Picture,” a 31-foot-by-111-foot shot overlooking a control tower and twin runways, was just one project in the larger collaboration, but it was an undertaking like no other that required the help of many.

“We pulled it off through the help of probably 400 volunteers, at one time or another, who came to help,” Garnier, president of the Legacy Project, said. “To me, that was one of the really exciting things about this project was the collaboration. People would find out about this project, and they’d get really enthused by it and wanted to be part of something that was larger than all of us.”

Taken on July 6, 2006, the photo was shot from a jet hangar that was converted into a camera obscura. Spada had been working with camera obscura images in China when he brought the idea to the others over some drinks.

“There was a row of former jet hangars, helicopter squadron hangars that were facing the control towers that would have just made beautiful camera obscuras, so we picked one and went from there,” Spada said. “After that, for the year from the time of inception to the time we actually did it, we were fundraisers, we were politicians, we were construction workers, anything but artists.

“It was fortunate that we had beer because if we had any inkling of what we would have gotten ourselves into, we would have easily talked our way out of it, just the logistics of this. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It’s one of the most insane things we’ve ever done.”

Artists Jacques Garnier and Clayton Spada, from left, stand next to a crate holding "The Great Picture."
Artists Jacques Garnier and Clayton Spada, from left, stand next to a crate holding “The Great Picture,” at the Great Park in Irvine on Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

To create the image, the hangar had to be made dark. Using a 400-pound piece of muslin, it became the world’s largest pinhole camera. A 6-millimeter pinhole was placed in the doors of the hangar, and it was exposed for 35 minutes, before the image was processed within the building.

“The Great Picture” plays a part in the memory of the base, as well as a transition period in photography.

“The piece that we created was almost right at that perfect transition point as photography migrated from analog to digital,” Garnier said. “We created something in an analog manner. Within 24 hours, digital reproductions of what we had created were floating around the internet, in newspapers, all around the world. It’s kind of interesting how something made analog became digital almost instantaneously.”

The exhibit, “The Great Picture: Making the World’s Largest Photograph,” will be open to the public from Feb. 19 to May 7 at Palm Court Arts Complex in Irvine. “The Great Picture” is on site in a crate with literature and pictures about its creation available for viewing.

The exceptional photograph has been shown around the world, including at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China.

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