Archive for June, 1997

Paul Caponigro

June 22, 1997

A small crowd bustles in tight quarters at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Only two walls frame the room. On one wall a fathers work, a master of black and white images. The other holds six color and four black and white prints which scream in contrast to their ancestors.

Eleven of Paul Caponigro’s passionate views of nature are matted in white and sealed with black frames. They hang majestically evoking the warm heart of Mother Nature. Leaves and trees, stone cathedral walls, running deer from Italy, Ireland and Connecticut, they are all one world. We are all his audience. We live our lives surrounded by nature, but few of us ever experience the moments Paul is able to capture. It’s as if to look at a cloud in the sky is suddenly more real, more purposeful when seen through Paul’s lens.

The perpendicular wall holds six color and four black and white prints which scream in contrast to their ancestors. With titles like Lotus of Sand and Rosa Celestia, they too inspect nature from the inside out. John Paul Caponigro, the son, an artist of illustration and manipulation, tempts the fine art world and pronounces a new format in the digital era. It is the new age of Caponigro, which dares to ask the question, where does the photograph end and the computer begin?

They are bulky men in stature. Dressed plainly, conspicuous only to their business dress clad crowd. A few at the opening address them, talking of color, contrast, and composition. Others stare, mouths agape, eyes gazed at two generations of artists, both masters in their own right.

Paul Caponigro has been a photographer for over forty years. Born along the North Shore of Massachusetts, his early years were spent capturing images of the shoreline. The army brought him to the west coast where he fell in with the likes of Ansel Adams and Minor White. Paul spent time under the tutelage of Minor White, who later became a curator at The George Eastman House where Paul Caponigro held his first exhibition in 1958.

Shortly thereafter, Paul returned to Boston where he took up architectural photography. At the time, Boston was undergoing a “redevelopmental program.” They were burning areas, knocking down buildings and rebuilding. Paul alone with his camera investigated and uncovered beautiful details that were being destroyed. He then turned a number of prints over to the Boston Historical Society. “I’m a fan of stone, cut or otherwise.” Detail in the falling structures appealed to him.

In 1960, Paul rented a place in Ipswich near the sea and gave up architectural photography. With help from Ansel Adams, he landed a job with the Polaroid Corporation as a consultant in research and development. The $300.00 monthly salary was barely enough to live on. However, as a perk, Polaroid offered Paul free film in abundance. This comfortable arrangement allowed Paul to focus on his work and maintain a living.

“In 1965, two stars came into my life, the sunflower and my son was born. And those two stars have stayed with me for quite some time.” Paul became completely immersed in the importance of both stars. One has lasted a lifetime, the other an affair of four months. Paul was introduced to the sunflower when a student brought one to his home to congratulate the Caponigro’s on the birth of their son. It rested on the kitchen table for days; “Every time I started to look at it, it started to look back at me.” He began to photograph the single flower, and then progressed. He would ask permission to photograph in people’s gardens or spend afternoons traipsing through public gardens. Pail watched with intensity as they gracefully dried in the face of death. “The spirit of the sunflower said ‘don’t go away yet, there is more here.'” In a series of famous images, Paul captured angles and light balances exposing the true beauty of the flower. The popularity of the series led Kodak to use one of the prints on some of their Polymax paper boxes. “The whole life cycle of the sunflower simply presented itself for review,” and Paul seized the opportunity.

Paul’s interest in architecture led him to Ireland on a Guggenheim grant. He was deeply interested in the material of ancient cultures. Irish landscapes stole his heart and he spent a year photographing the land and searching out ancient monuments. “The mood of Ireland fascinated me. It was a beautiful feminine and moving land that was always speaking somehow, raw energy would come up from the ground and just issue forth…even the dwellings look as if they rise out of the earth.”

His interest in ancient art began in grade school on field trips to local museums. “I would pass through those halls in those big museums and it left a few impressions.” As he grew older, he returned to the same museums with a new agenda: “They let me in there with a camera to photograph the ancient sculptures, the Egyptians. I loved to photograph some of those ancient arts.”

That love took root and is exposed in every photograph from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. While Paul primarily embraced the land, he focused his work on the ancient churches and crosses of Ireland, the old Celtic Ruins.

Paul Caponigro has a deep volume of work from his time abroad, but is anxious to return and complete his encounters with the mystical Irish land. “It’s like being in a New York subway. The force of that city pushes you. But in Ireland, there is something quite magical…I look for that sense of spirit wherever I go.”

John remembers the time in Ireland fondly. It was where he, at the young age of 9, began to experiment with his own artistic nature. He got hold of a box of crayons and took up drawing murals on the walls of their rented lodging. “My parents were pretty terrific about it. They just put up blocks of paper on the wall and said ‘here kid'” John picked up crayons, pencils, and finger paints long before he recognized that both of his parents were able artists.

Eleanor Morris Caponigro, John’s mother, is an artist of design. She started out painting and eventually took up graphic design. As a child, John recalls going to print shops with her and reading comic books. “I picked up a lot of printing technology, the language and seeing what it was…it has given me a lot of exposure to many aspects of the art world.” She is currently running her own graphic design studio in Santa Fe, Eleanor Morris Caponigro Design, and is responsible for the design work in all of Paul’s books.

Growing up with a well known artist as a parent can often lay a heavy burden on a developing child. “If he was going to do anything, he would know and doesn’t need an insistent or dominating influence. Any time he expressed the desire to learn or do something, we simply, my wife and I, provided him with the materials and let him go”. John felt his support, without pressure and holds it primarily for his capabilities as an artist. Paul Caponigro’s way was to respect each family member as an individual: “We had four walls in our home. One wall was for daddy’s photographs, another was for the lovely paintings mom used to make and he had his wall for whenever he made a drawing…but we each respected one another. That is the process of art. His drawings were as important as my photographs and that came as a natural result of our respecting and desiring to stay in a creative process.”

Paul Caponigro very rarely shoots people. What he claims is impatience prevents him from indulging in portraiture. While he admits to finding people fascinating, he clings to nature as his primary focus. “Nature always has the answer to my questions. People sometimes answer my questions.”

On his own, young John would pop into the darkroom and witness what transpired. One time, Paul was working on prints from Stonehenge, he stepped out of the studio, leaving John alone. Paul returned to find a multiple image laying in a tray of hypo. Even in junior high, John was experimenting in manipulation with his father’s tools. “I think he played it marvelously. If I wanted to be a biologist, he would have been just as proud. We still would have related as individuals.”

Enabling any individual to establish themselves is something that Paul feels very strongly about, and not just with respect to his own son. “I complain a lot about influence, because I think there is a lot of bad influence around, but more important than anything, the spirit of the individual should be totally respected and not dumped on.” Paul firmly believes that no one should insist on how another lives; it is with this philosophy that he raised his son, and he continues to live by it today.

In a sense, John didn’t pick up a camera seriously until he was in college and that was a deliberate move. John spent most of his early years developing his own talents in illustration and investigating his artistic desires. “When I was in college, I finally realized I had the opportunity to study with the best teacher I could possibly get and it was also a great time to spend with my father.” It was then that he realized that not picking up a camera was equivalent to living in his father’s shadow with one. He began his study of photography with the thought of using it as a reference for paintings. On summer breaks from college, John and his father would travel and shoot, always taking time to sit in the darkroom and print. Once computer technology became affordable, John immersed himself in learning the nuances of digital imaging.It was not until 1990 that John began to work with the tools he uses today. He calls his computer “a thousand dollar coloring book” which he uses masterfully to complete his images. Some of his first projects did not incorporate a camera or film. John would scan rocks and other objects to control textures. He eventually included photography and illustration elements into his works. “(I can) get the literalness and description of photography and interact with it and compose as could with my drawings and paintings. I thought it fascinating that now I could draw or paint with photographic materials.”

For a father and son, their work could not be more different yet the same. In both of their work, there are often like elements, but they are based on techniques and formats that are entirely disparate.

Paul captures nature’s essence through a view camera. He searches for his material in the woods and meadows of the world. He communes with his subjects and establishes a working relationship, often times, with the inanimate. With little or no pre-production he carries his tools and works with his hands to develop and print the finest quality he can. “If something sends off the signal that there might be potential for images there, I’ll follow it.”

While in Ireland, Paul came across a herd of over 30 stark white deer. He was anxious to photograph the eye-capturing animals, but the task seemed impossible due to their disorganization. He approached the herder and asked to use the sheepdog to gather the deer and lead them. Paul was not sure whether or not the dog could handle the tasks, and if so, in which direction it would send the herd. Paul set up his view camera in some bushes across from a bountiful tree. He waited patiently. “I thought, well here I am in the middle of nowhere, let’s see what the fairies give me.” As luck, or magic, would have it, the deer sprinted practically in single file format right into his view. As soon as they hit the edge of his view camera, he shot the image.

Capturing an image for John is a process of development that includes illustration, photography, and digital manipulation. The blending of sources, both photographic and non photographic, lends itself to extensive pre-production and the manipulation of original works. The topic of digital manipulation alone raises many questions for both artist and critics. “I like to set up a guessing game.” John confronts the issue of an artist’s construction head on in his work, “I thought it interesting to strike up a dialog with my audience in almost every picture between what had been manipulated and what hadn’t.”

John’s ideas come to him suddenly, at night in a dream, even at the dinner table. He quickly sketches figures and tucks them away. At times he gleans ideas while browsing through other sketches and photographs, or from being out in the field. “I realize that you can make images in a lot of ways and I try not to put limits on it.” From a stack of over 2000 sketches, he painfully selects which work he will complete next. The decision making process itself is the most critical. He may only produce 24 works a year, and of these he works only one piece at a time. While he has found this editing process adds depth to the work, it is perhaps the least enjoyable aspect. “There is no guarantee I will make the other 12, so that makes the ones I choose to now so much more important.”

As with his parenting style, Paul allows John to develop at his own rate in his own format. “It is a new technology, it has potential. What I think and feel is that he will respect it and treat it with the spirit of an artist and think he is going to be one of the leading edge people because he is an artist first.” John and Alexandra Caponigro are following closely in the career footsteps of John’s parents. Like Paul, John focuses on photography while Alexandra concentrates on design. Alexandra Caponigro, developed her graphic design skills by studying with John’s mother Eleanor. Now the new generation of Caponigro has combined their talents in to a design studio run out of a barn on John and Alexandra’s 17 acre home in Maine. John focuses on his artwork, however, the studio does handle commercial projects. John, along with his photographic and digital work, writes for View Camera magazine.

Both Paul and John root their work in concepts of nature. While Paul chooses to capture raw images, and John uses nature as a palette, they both respect the land and it’s origins. When working together, both father and son share a sense of enjoyment and excitement. They maintain a consistent dialog regarding the art world and it’s development.

While working apart, each keeps focus on his work and concentrates on developing and honing his own craft. More recently, the two have blended their works in a series of father and son exhibitions. Beginning in Santa Fe, the show then traveled to Maine and is currently in Rochester through May 26. The show will then move to Atlanta where a more extensive range of images will be on display.

Currently, Paul is settling into his new home in Maine, housed on John and Alexandra’s property. His new living space will incorporate a darkroom right on the premises. The living arrangement will enable John’s studio to control the release of Paul’s prints and handle other administrative tasks, freeing Paul up for more travel. Their close proximity will allow Paul and his son to continue working together and possibly merge more projects in the future. “I’m sure it will evolve as time goes on. It’s just a forum…because people are interested…the father is the traditional master and the kid is working with new tools…”