Laguna Canyon Project

"The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism," to be published by Laguna Wilderness Press in 2015, is about the Laguna Canyon Project, a long-term photographic art project, focusing attention on Laguna Canyon—one of the last natural corridors to the Pacific Ocean. The book includes words and images on the project and on the surrounding Laguna Wilderness Park. It also describes the influence and impact that this multi-faceted undertaking, created by photographic artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield, had on environmental debates, and on decision making by community and political leaders.

Particular emphasis is on Phase VIII, "The Tell" photographic mural that Burchfield, Chamberlain and an army of supporters erected in the canyon in 1989. This 636-foot-long installation served as the focal point and catalyst for involvement of thousands of participants protesting the Irvine Company’s proposed Laguna Laurel housing development. This phase drew significant coverage from CNN and Life magazine, among other media.

Laguna Wilderness Press is a non-profit, dedicated to publishing books concerning the presence, preservation and importance of wilderness environments. Concurrent with the book publication, there will be an exhibition of the project at the Laguna Art Museum in the fall 2015.

Genesis of The Laguna Canyon Project

Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield opened BC Space, a combination photo lab/studio/ gallery in 1973 to provide high quality photographic services for galleries, museums and artists. During their many hours working together, they often discussed what they could do to protect the Laguna Canyon, a valuable piece of countryside, just a few miles from their door. They ultimately agreed upon a course of action and, in the spring of 1980, commenced the "Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document," their long-term environmental art project. The immediate goal was to preserve the canyon in the tradition of documentary photography, while challenging the community to preserve it in reality.

For Phase I of this endeavor, with a handful of volunteers, they sequentially photographed both sides of the Laguna Canyon Road. The resulting 646 frames per side were printed into twin color prints, depicting their passage down the “last nine miles of the westward migration.”

Evolution to Performance Art

Soon after, they repeated the survey, but this time at night, and dubbed it Phase III, "Nightlight Documentation.” Publicity from these ventures was beginning to generate responses from people offering to help with future phases. With the media success, the partners also realized that the project was becoming performance art, in addition to documentation.

Building on the success of the first four phases, the art partners embarked on a much more complicated and expensive undertaking, in which they intended to “paint the canyon with light.” This phase took two years of planning, required more people, expensive equipment, and permits from multiple level governmental agencies. With their growing army of volunteers, the pair lobbied regional environmental groups, the art community, and local public officials for permission and support.

In September 1983, Chamberlain and Burchfield executed Phase V, "Primary Light Documentation.” For this phase, 65 designated participants (plus backup) obtained 13 vehicles and a 30,000-watt generator, towed by a 40-foot flatbed truck. They moved this entire caravan down Laguna Canyon Road from 6 PM to 6 AM, while escorted by three different police agencies and Caltrans officials. The resulting images were printed onto a single print 3.5 inches wide by 516 feet long, depicting the entire length of the Northeast side of the road in kaleidoscopic color.

The Tell Photomural

By 1987, core samples were being taken for Southern California's first toll road, which would bisect Laguna Canyon, and maps were being drawn for the Laguna Laurel housing development, which the road would serve. Construction for both was scheduled to begin in 1989.

In response to these foreboding developments, Burchfield and Chamberlain began extensive lobbying to execute their next phase, which was to build a giant photographic mural in the canyon directly in the path of the toll road, and across the highway from the proposed new city. They succeeded in building Phase VIII, "The Tell," an enormous 636-foot-long photomural that undulated across the landscape, with its voluptuous nature resembling the surrounding canyons, and faced with an estimated 100,000 personal photographs. Its purpose, officially at first, was to celebrate the Centennial of Orange County and the Sesquicentennial of the discovery of photography. They erected the installation in the Sycamore Flats area of Laguna Wilderness Park.

On November 11, 1989, The Tell became the destination for an estimated 8,000 to 11,000 people who marched there from downtown Laguna Beach. These participants held a day-long demonstration protesting the housing development, which was scheduled to be built across the road from The Tell site. As a consequence of this public display, Donald Bren, who owned the Irvine Company, agreed to negotiate with the cities of Irvine and Laguna Beach to release that land for public acquisition.

(The Laguna Canyon Project's final journey, Phase XVI, occurred on June 21, 2010 when 20 photographers walked the Canyon Road, photographing the entire nine-miles.)


Introduction: Liz Goldner describes how environmental art, specifically the Laguna Canyon Project, can impact political decisions and outcomes. She gives brief histories of the Laguna Canyon Project and of Laguna Beach as an art colony.

Refining Artivism: Mark Chamberlain describes the ancient and recent archeological, environmental and social history of the Laguna Canyon, and the origins, evolution and effects of the Laguna Canyon Project.

Reflections on the Laguna Wilderness and the Laguna Canyon Project: Jerry Burchfield reflects on the significance of the Laguna Wilderness area.

How an Art Project Preserved a Canyon: Leah Vasquez, artist, arts advocate, describes how she brought The Tell to the attention of the Arts Commission, resulting in City support. Also references the history of Laguna Canyon.

A Struggle to Envision a Canyon: Mike McGee, Gallery Director, Begovich Gallery, Cal State Fullerton, curator for the Laguna Canyon Project exhibition at Laguna Art Museum, 2015, describes how the Laguna Canyon Project fits into the history of protest and environmental art.

Remembering The Tell: Mike Phillips, Executive Director, Laguna Canyon Conservancy, 1990 to1995, Community News Writer, “Laguna Coast Line,” during years of The Tell, discusses the photomural installation, its ambience, magnetic energy and influence on the community.

A Post-Script to The Tell: Kellie Hall, freelance writer, describes what has happened to the various pieces of The Tell since the photomural was disassembled.

How The Tell Helped to Set the Stage, and the Negotiations that Followed: Paul Freeman, former Mayor, Laguna Beach, consultant and lead negotiator between this City and the Irvine Company, describes how The Tell became an important part of these negotiations.


Laguna Canyon Project Images

Laguna Canyon Foundation

Laguna Canyon

Laguna Greenbelt

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

OC Parks Website Page

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