The World’s Largest Photograph Returns to Its SoCal Birthplace

LAMag spoke to one of the photographers behind the historic project who explains all it represents to both photographic and California history

In Irvine, Orange County, situated among Great Park’s 1300 acres of soccer fields, tennis courts, carousels, and parking lots, the largest photograph ever made is sitting in a box. A very large one. 

It’s just a bit ironic, according to curator and director at the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College, Tyler Stallings. After all, the picture is just so massive. Stallings followed the photo project’s inception, development, and creation back in 2006. He remembers marveling at the sheer gravity of every single decision that went into making the project a success. 

“I was totally blown away,” says Stallings. “The artists recognized what were intended to be really just temporary military buildings, the aesthetics of the decaying buildings, the light coming through these big buildings, all this kind of stuff. And through the artistic viewpoint, that became an archive.” 

Today, the photo is a part of Great Park’s ongoing exhibition in the Palm Courts Art Complex: “The Great Picture: Making the World’s Largest Photograph,” a kind of kismet undertaking, given that the photo was developed in the decommissioned military jet hangar once a part of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and later transformed into Great Park. 

The brainchild of The Legacy Project, a six-person photography collaborative—Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Rob Johnson, Douglas McCulloh, and Clayton Spada—the Great Picture was indeed a kind of anticipatory response to the military base’s slow-approaching vanishing. 

“The way [the project] started,” Jacques Garnier tells LAMag, “is that there were some teachers up at Cypress College, teachers of photography, who started taking their classes to the base… We realize that there was this 4800-acre military ghost town that nobody knew what was going to happen to it.” 

Jerry Burchfield, who has since died, floated an idea to the group: “We’ve got this golden opportunity to document what’s here,” he said, according to Garnier. And so they did. After all, it was a crucial part of California’s history. Didn’t that deserve some commemoration? 

Together, the group worked with over 400 volunteers to transform the jet hanger into a massive pinhole camera. The biggest camera for the biggest photo so to speak. They worked with a canvas that was over 3,000 square feet and utilized an Olympic swimming pool-sized chemical bath to develop the photo, a monument to a California in transition. 

“There was this combination of two things kind of going on,” says Stallings of the project’s initial development. “In the art community, there was this amazing call for volunteers to come and help make this, you know, big photograph…And, with the decommissioning of the base, there was a lot of debate as to what it was going to become.” 

According to Stallings, who organized an exhibition of the work years ago in the Culver Center of the Arts two-story atrium, the photo’s return to California only further reinforces the project’s attempt to convey nostalgia and bittersweetness tucked into one era’s slow fade into the next. 

“What’s interesting now is that when you go to Great Park,” says Garnier, “very few people know about the history of the base, its military history—or the Great Picture or anything we did. So, with this exhibition, having it brought to the public’s attention is really important.” 

Garnier’s memories of the early days of the project evoke a kind of youthful idealism underpinned by a master artist’s understanding of just how much an image can convey history, an urgent argument regarding the boundaries of what we hold dear as a community. 

“What we meant by documentation,” he says, “was photographing every structure that’s on the base, photographing all the runways, doing perimeter projects, doing runway projects, making the world’s largest photograph. All of these were extensions of part of what we were doing out there.” 

The collective initially predicted a $6,000 budget for the Great Picture project and by the time it was finished, even with a massive onslaught of donated materials, labor, and supplies, Garnier estimates it was more like an $80,000 behemoth. 

Still, for all of the intense planning and testing that went into negotiating the logistics of a project of this scale, volunteers and photographers alike were driven by a more spiritual onus. 

“It was that part of people wanting to be a part of something bigger than all of us,” says Garnier. “This was done at the transitional point between analog photography going into digital photography. And this was probably the last big film-based project that was made. Interestingly enough, by the time I woke up the morning after the project’s unveiling, digital reproductions of the Great Picture had been shot around the world and showed up in over a hundred news agencies already.” 

The finished image, which looks equal parts photo and painting–an echo, Stallings says, of California’s emblematic street murals–was three stories by 11 stories, its massiveness part of what makes it so difficult to display, even as the centerpiece of an exhibition. But these numbers, Garnier says, mean nothing unless you’re actually sitting under it or looking at it. It is, after all, history unfolded in all of its overwhelming glory. 

“It was a form of capturing memory,” says Stallings. 

It was also a way to give the local community some sense of say in how the land in transition would be used and, hopefully, preserved. The passage of time, and California’s growing housing crisis, have slowly flexed the initial boundaries set in place in regard to the development of Great Park land. But this, in and of itself, is also a part of what makes the Great Picture such a crucial hearkening back to Californians’ commitment to protecting land usage—to an age where devotion was measured in one’s dedication to preservation through documentation. 

Though the Great Park exhibition focuses more on the development of the Great Picture than the picture itself, Stallings and Garnier both address the deep symbolic resonance of this homecoming. 

“This gallery in the Great Park is amongst sports fields and all sorts of things,” says Stallings. “It was once this marine base and now you would absolutely not know that. So now, there’s the idea of memory. What was once here and how quickly it changes.” 

“The Great Picture: Making the World’s Largest Photograph,” exhibit will be open to the public through May 7.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign for our newsletters today