(15/55) Paul Caponigro - photographer

Paul Caponigro, Quantock Hills, Somserset (1987)
photograph & copyright: Nick Lloyd 

Of all the words associated with the practise of photography, surely the most underused term is the word craft. In a world of instant or near instant digital photography, the ways in which images are made or shaped in the 21st century make for a more uniform & largely unskilled kind of photographic practise.
However, craft in its original meaning of skill (or hand skill) in a particular kind of skilled work is a somewhat hidden though integral element in the creation of original photography, but often (at least in the traditional sense) through careful repeated application, reveals the intent and personality of the maker.

Photographers, who in general like to focus on technical matters often seem relaxed about using words like technique or style, but these are often clumsy distinctions that serve only to mask mainly superficial distinctions between images and their makers.

In terms of the work of the photographer discussed in this article, Paul Caponigro, the word craft seems particularly suitable. But mainly to mark his work as a distinct body of photography with its own unique characteristics. In which his art is shaped through an expert knowledge of the medium. Albeit one in which film, paper and chemicals still form the basis of his work.

Paul Caponigro work is also quite distinct as a photographer. For unlike say Ansel Adams who used technique to create a heroic and celebratory vision of nature, Caponigro's work is personal, often framing small, intimate moments within larger landscapes. His work also references a world in which the trappings of modernity are often completely and deliberately absent.
It's photographic art in perhaps the purest form. Reflective of the maker, often melancholic in mood but also transcendent. Taking you deeper into the objects and scenes. And like a mirror, transporting you unexpectedly into an interior world.

And this is perhaps one of the aspects of photographic art & practise, that many feel is becoming less and less distinct or apparent in the modern era of photography that we're in now. For while documentary or journalistic photography is (rightly in my view) celebrated for showing us the what, where, when of our world and the actions of people within it, this use & application of photography tends to draws us outwards, to look through a window of the photographers making, so that by seeing we have the hope of understanding.

What Caponigro, White (and others) have done is to create photographs that act as mirrors, reflecting the makers pre-occupations and personal philosophies and (hopefully)in the process, drawing us as viewers inwards too, so that the objects or scenes we view in the photographs, are just part of what we can sense, believe or know.


Beginnings


Caponigro began expressing an interest in photography when he was 13. Like Ansel Adams he was also passionate about music, which lead to him first studying music at Boston University College of Music in 1950, before switching to a study of photography at the California School of Fine Art.


Photography 


In the video (below) made recently, Caponigro makes a distinction between the work of Ansel Adams, who he says "photographs images for what they are' and Minor White, who photographed images "for what they are but for what else they are".



A linguistic distinction for sure, but a telling one when one begins to look closer at what his work reveals.


Sidebar


The idea that photographs could contain other meanings and could enable or provoke personal introspection, is not a new idea either. As far back as 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot  wrote in his seminal book The Pencil of Nature:

"A painter's eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow thrown across his (the photographer's) path, a time withered oak, or a moss covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings."

In other words, while a photograph may fix in time something that exists or has existed, the object or picturing of the object or scene, may act as a trigger for other personal perceptions, anchored or related to which is shown in the photograph.

In the same way that photographs of deceased loved ones are never just a photograph to a family, so photographs can act as filters or mirrors for other ideas - including but not limited to that which is photographed.

Alfred Stieglitz, nearly 90 years later, created perhaps the most well known examples of what might be termed subjectless photography of the sky above and clouds specifically.
What could be more ephemeral and impersonal than clouds? Outside of personal control, these rapidly moving shapes are perhaps the ultimate expression of a black & white photographic vision.
But again, though consisting of abstract shapes framed simply, these photographs allow for a range of responses from the viewer beyond the simple registering of what they are of.

Seen as a series, the viewer is invited to bring something else to the experience of looking at them.
In the same way that Casablanca is not just a film about a bar owner who has interesting encounters with a range of people or Johann Sebastian Bach just created a series of pleasant musical works, so these photographs of clouds are not just photographs of clouds.




Paul Caponigro, though not directly influenced by Stieglitz studied with Minor White, and White's influence, especially in Caponigro's early work, is telling.

Consider the image below. of rocks. Probably part of a much larger structure. But that's not what is striking or interesting. It's an image that is defies an easy label. Knowing what has been photographed in no way compensates the viewer for the brooding, sombre and elegant image with which they are faced.

Click the thumbnail to enlarge the image and you'll see something all too rare. A photograph that's fascinating not for what it's an image of, but maybe for what it isn't. In other words, yes they are rocks in the frame. But is that all they are? All you experience when you're looking closer?

The American photographer Garry Winogrand, as different in his work & world view from Caponigro as it's probably possible to get, said famously: "a photograph is not what was photographed, it’s something else."

Looking at this image (below) either by itself or alongside Paul Caponigro's other works further down this page, Winogrand's words seem particularly appropriate.

 
West Hartford, Conn 1959
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)


Another image taken earlier in his career, shows the direct influence of his colleague Minor White. 
Again as with the photograph of the rock face, the literal description for this image might be ice crystals on a window (and trees.) As with almost all of his images, the raw material is nature, capturing the random by products & shifting transient phenomena of the natural world. And chance. And light. 

In lesser hands, this might be an exercise in simple craft. But again, I'd argue that what we're looking at is stubbornly, defiantly something else. Call it mystical. Call it transcendent. Whatever you call the end result, you're literally looking through a window at something new. That did not exist before Caponigro brought it into existence. Photography as an act of creation and will.

Frost window 2 Ipswich. Mass 1961
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)


Minor White - Frosted Window, Rochester, New York 1960
(copyright by Minor White/respective copyright holders)

The Flumes Great Basin, White Mts, New Hampshire 1960
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

There are other forces at work in Caponigro's work too. Look at the images of rock, ice, fungus and leaves.

Simple, direct, descriptive & literal. But again, transformational. Could a fungus be called beautiful or sculptural? Sombre? Could 2 leaves from the natural world ever look as elegant or so simply'designed' as the 2 shown below (taken in 1963.)

More questions. Has Paul Caponigro created something new in these pictures? Or is he just acutely sensitive to the natural world? Is it the end product of natures work that we see repeatedly in these works or are the objects simply by-products of natural forces, that he's actually more interested in revealing?


Ice Wall & Rock, Gloucester, Mass 1962
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Fungus, Mass 1962
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Two leaves, Brewster, NY 1963
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders

The series of Caponigro's work, that first drew my attention was the series (below) of trees in woods. Not so much because I was interested in woods, although its true that my hometown had a very large wood near the town centre, but because I wanted to dislike these pictures.

I'd better explain that. I saw some of these photographs as a teenager and knew they were something special. But also that they 'seemed' plain, at least in comparison to the kinds of photograph I saw which were more celebrated for their technique or directness (Avedon,Arbus etc.) But conversely there was something about them that I couldn't describe in terms of what I understood at the time to be conventional terms of photographic appreciation. 
They seemed plain but also superbly crafted. A contradiction.
There was in these photographs, an emotional richness that I'd never felt in photographs before. An after glow. Something dark, sombre but undeniably uncommonly beautiful. As an adult, I can see now that they appealed to me in ways that make sense to me now years later both in terms of technique, craft and vision but also feeling. 

Whether what I see and feel in relation to these photographs is unique to me I can't comment. Perhaps a  confluence of my own personal psychology and Caponigro's unique vision? 

Brewster, NY 1963
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
Brewster, NY 1963
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Woods Series, Redding, Conn 1968
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
Woods Series, Redding, Conn 1968 
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Kentucky 1965
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)


Take this photograph of branches. To anyone living in the UK, this image taken in dark overcast soft light showing faintly glinting branches and the forest behind, speaks of autumn & winter walks in woods & forests. A sort of fragile almost imperceptible beauty. Difficult to capture, it's not perhaps the most obvious example technically of the use of the Zone System. But actually it is. See how the greys are separated within the scene. There are very few actual blacks due to his masterful control of the different levels of darkness, making the glistening drops of water on the branches shine & glow as the lightest elements within the frame.
It's also one of my personal favourite photographs.


Woods Series, Redding. Conn 1968
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
Blue Ridge, Parkway 1965
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)


What is also unusual about Caponigro's work, given his influences, is the extent to which he has an eye for the purely graphic possibilities of the natural landscape.
These 2 images below, the second one in particular, show how light, vantage point, expert framing and focus can combine in the hands of a master, to produce something unique. And uniquely photographic. 

Woods Series, Redding, Conn 1968
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Woods Series, Redding, Conn 1968
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Cloisters, New York 1965
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Nahant, Mass 1966
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Nahant, Mass 1965
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Objects

There are other distinctive aspects of Caponigro's work, that mark him as something other than JUST a landscape photographer. Namely his insistence in the power of the photograph as a revelatory tool of investigation.
Take the photograph of the apple below. Variously described by critics as a map of the cosmos, or simply known as the galaxy apple the image does show how a concentration of attention on a single simple familiar form can yield unexpected results.
Ditto, the cabbage leaf, shown here (as he sometimes does) as a negative image. It's interesting how rarely, even in a pre-digital age, we celebrate the beauty of or visual richness of the negatives made as a result of the conventional film photography process. 

Of course, for those of us who work primarily in smaller formats, this is not so easy to show or see. But nonetheless it's another fascinating aspect of Caponigro's work, that he's able to show process and craft whilst simultaneously revealing new aspects of natural forms.


Apple, New York 1964
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Cabbage leaf, Winthrop, Mass 1964
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Caponigro's interest in natural forms and his belief in the photograph as an instrument of revelation is shown more clearly perhaps in the series of photographs made of sunflowers, and reproduced in his book of the same name.


While not every single photograph holds the attention, as is so often the case with extended single subject long form essays, it's also difficult to think of a series of photographs of natural forms on the same subject that are as abstract, literal, revelatory and inventive.

It seems sometimes, looking at the images he's created of inverted forms or decaying flower heads, that he's taken us on an exhaustive journey and by the end has nothing left to sho. So thoroughly has he investigated the subject.

While it's true that photographs of flowers (along with images of friends, family and cats) are some of the most prolific subject matter produced, it's also true that while these are photographs of flowers, they are also, as evidence previously, photographs that are exquisite meditations on both the simple wonders of the natural world and of the power and subtlety of photography.


Sunflower, Winthrop, Mass 1965
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro 
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders) 
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro 
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)  
 
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
 
from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro 
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
  from the book 'Sunflower' by Paul Caponigro
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
  
Given all the images shown so far here and the ways in which Caponigro has explored the natural world, it's slightly exasperating to acknowledge the image most often associated with his name is Running White Deer. While the images of animals, seen as ghostly blurs, running across a panoramic backdrop of trees is unusual and could easily be seen in the portfolio of less creative photographers as a 'signature' image, it's always struck me as perhaps one of the least interesting images he has produced.
That's a personal view. If you're looking at this image for the first time, especially after having seen the viewed the other images (above) you may very well take a quite different view. 
   
Running White Deer
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

The last set of images I want to show are from a continuing series of images Paul Caponigro took in Ireland and England of ancient stone structures in the natural landscape.

While these images are not necessarily as beautiful as the images of nature shown previously (although I'd personally argue many are) these images show something else at work.
Part architecture study, part mystical celebration, part landscape photography, the images when seen in sequence shown an appreciation & understanding (or perhaps sensitivity?) to other aspects of the natural world. Aspects more keenly felt perhaps by our ancient ancestors than for us, for whom the land is more of an abstract concept than a living breathing tangible reality.

It's the closest Paul Caponigro seems to come in his work, to photographing the human condition and it's an extraordinary body of work for that reason. Showing these monuments to human ingenuity and to pagan belief while simultaneously celebrating their place in a local landscape. 


As a photographer he's an important creative force, not just for the work he's already produced and the people he's influenced through his work as a teacher (which incidentally includes me) but also for what his work means in terms of the possibilities of photography.

For without examples like this, photography may very well luxuriate in a more & more literal examination of our world. Missing the ambiguity and quiet intensity that photography can also provide. 

 
Detail, Recumbent stone, Stonehenge, Wiltshire (1972)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Recumbent stone circle, Kirkton of Bourtie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (1972)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
Full circle looking southwest, Callanish stone circle (1972)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

Portal dolmen, Haroldstown, County Carlow, Ireland (1967)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

 
Corbelled Ceiling, Newgrange Tumulus, County Meath, Ireland (1967)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

 
Detail view, looking southeast, Kermario Stone alignments (1967)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

 
Stones of South Circle, looking north, Avebury Stone Circle (1967)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)

 
Looking west, first morning light, Stonehenge (1970)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
 
Within circle, looking toward Heel Stone, Stonehenge (1967)
(copyright by Paul Caponigro/respective copyright holders)
 
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