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Laguna Canyon Project and The Tell


Mark & Jerry, Phase I, 1980

The Laguna Canyon Project, a satellite BC venture, was a photographic documentation of Laguna Canyon Road, the main access route to the Pacific Ocean from inland Orange County.


Beginning in 1980, Jerry and Mark undertook a long term documentation of the Road to both preserve the road in photographs and draw attention to the importance of this bucolic passage to the identity of Laguna Beach's community.


Over 30 years, at the beginning of each decade, they photographed the entire length of the road and environs, from the Santa Ana Freeway off ramp to the Pacific Ocean, both day and night.


In 1984, with the creative assistance of other artists, they designed and created the Time Machine for Moving Stills, displaying multiple-photo 3.5-inch by 276-foot long panoramas of the last nine miles of the westward migration to Laguna Beach. Larry Gill fabricated the structure and cabinetry, Bill and David Collins contributed the electronics, and Randy Bader constructed the guiding track for the photos.


The final phase of The Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document was completed in memory of Jerry Burchfield on the Summer Solstice of 2010.


In 1988, Mark wrote in Journal of Orange County Studies, "Local residents see the canyon as a greenbelt buffer, while others view it as virgin territory ripe for development. But we felt it imperative to call into question prevailing conceptions of progress. We used photography, video, sculpture, performance, installations, and collaborative events to address these concerns."


The Tell


Tell Diver, Burchfield

The Laguna Canyon Project's largest and most dramatic Phase was The Tell photomural. This giant work was constructed in 1989, five miles into the canyon, across from the Irvine Company's proposed, and massive, Laguna Laurel Housing Project.


The name "Tell" comes from the archeological term for a mound of artifacts from prior civilizations, buried over by natural elements. A Tell was cited in James Michener's best-selling 1965 book, "The Source," a story dealing with the evolution of civilization.


The Tell photomural was built to resemble a small mountain composed of a wooden framework with hundreds of thousands of attached photographs, reflective of the lives of the people who donated their images. It grew to 636 feet in length and ranged up to 34 feet high, then dwindling down to the ground, undulating across the landscape, and diving back into the hillside. The installation resembled the voluptuous nature of the surrounding canyons, echoing a female figure in its shape, while its stylized Easter Island head was its physical and philosophical source.


People from across the country donated countless personal photographs. Several hundred volunteers helped build the installation and glued the pictures onto the framework, weaving the photos together like pixels in a pointillist painting by density, color, content, and type of photographic material, and positioning specific storylines on the chakra points of the larger body of the mural. The stories related many tales of man, woman, and the land.


The Tell became the site of numerous environmental demonstrations, receiving media coverage from CNN, Life magazine, and other national and local media. "On November 11, 1989, we coordinated with environmental groups to host a Walk and Demonstration to the mural. It was attended by an estimated 11,000 people," Mark explains. "Largely as a consequence of this event and other public pressures, the land was released for public acquisition. The Canyon (slated for suburban housing development) is now a key part of the Laguna Wilderness Park."


"Those rambling darkroom dialogues with Jerry over what we could do to protect a valuable piece of countryside evolved into a project that actually helped preserve that land," Mark adds. "Although encroachment is still a threat, the road and its surrounding hills are designated to remain undeveloped forever."


The Tell was disassembled for storage in 1990. Unfortunately, although most sections were destroyed in the Laguna wildfire of 1993, The Tell had become a fixture in local folklore. One wall-size photograph documenting The Tell is incorporated into the Nix Interpretive Center (across from the installation site), the gateway to the 6,200-acre Laguna Wilderness Park.


Creating the Laguna Canyon Project Book

In 2013, Mark Chamberlain and I were asked by Ron Chilcote, founder of Laguna Wilderness Press, to write a book on the Canyon Project. We titled the book, “The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism.”

Mark wrote the main essay for the book, and chose its images. I oversaw his essay for accuracy, helped edited the book, and wrote the Preface.

Mark’s 13,000-word essay begins with his journey to Laguna Beach in 1969, includes this area’s archeological, indigenous, artistic and counterculture history, the history of BC Space and the Laguna Canyon Project. The chapter, “The Iconography of The Tell,” reads in part: “As the story progressed, coming out of the hillside down toward the road, the mural had the first recognizable shapes at the fifty-seven-foot long Barosaurus dinosaur. Then there appeared a depiction of the Indian Ceremonial Plaza, followed by a Conestoga wagon careening downhill overtaking a startled deer. This was followed by other symbols of the white man’s influence, such as a telegraph pole with a dollar sign and a cactus made up of steel and glass buildings.”

Other contributors to the book are former Irvine Mayor and OC Great Park chairman Larry Agran, Jerry Burchfield, who passed away in 2009, Paul Freeman, lead negotiator for the Laguna Canyon land purchase by Laguna Beach; Mike McGee, Cal State Fullerton art department professor, Mike Phillips, Laguna Beach news writer, and Leah Vasquez, former chair, Laguna Beach Arts Commission. Collectively, they address the history and dynamics of the canyon and of the Laguna Canyon Project.

Mark Chamberlain and I put the finishing touches on the Laguna Canyon Project book in December 2017. By then, our collaborative composing and editing of words had become an intense labor of love. The book was sent to the printer, with the first few copies arriving from China in April 2018. Chilcote brought a copy to Mark, who was by then confined to a hospital bed, due to lung cancer. For the next several weeks, he proudly showed the book to the hundreds of people who visited him in the hospital. Before he passed away on April 23, 2018, I assured him that I would continue to promote the Laguna Canyon Project book and his amazing legacy to save Laguna Canyon.

Liz Goldner


Life Magazine, 1988

Mark & Jerry, Phase XIV, 2000

Project Final Phase, 2010

Contact information:

Rick Conkey (949) 573-8624,

Liz Goldner (949) 378-6485,