Down East 2013 ©
n a leafy back road in Cushing, the past and the future of fine art photography are living together in apparent harmony. Not only that, but their houses are only a hundred yards apart. Even more remarkably, they are father and son.
Paul Caponigro, now seventy-three, has garnered international recognition as one of the finest landscape photographers in the nation. Like Ansel Adams and Minor White, his mentors, his exquisitely detailed large-format gelatin silver prints capture the almost indefinable spirit of the natural world.As curator Peter C. Bunnell has written, Paul Caponigro "looks back purposefully to an older modern tradition — that of Stieglitzian photographic expressionism as perceived in the purity and sensuousness of black and white photographic materials."
Meanwhile his forty-year-old son, John Paul Caponigro, is on the front lines of the digital photography revolution. Author of two editions of a widely respected book, Adobe Photoshop Master Class, which have earned him the sobriquet of "Photoshop Guru," he teaches digital printing both at the Maine Photographic Workshops and the Santa Fe Workshops. He is credited with bringing a much-needed restraint and an artist's sensibility to digital photography, urging photographers to define the new medium for themselves rather than letting it define them, to think of it as a tool for their artistic vision. "The new paradigm is what can a photograph be, not what it was," he says.
As luck and schedules would have it, our first visit is to the future. John Paul (he goes by both names) lives in an old farmhouse painted an off-beat, muted green that probably isn't standard issue Benjamin Moore. Pale yellow squash are strewn across a lichenous stone wall in front of the house. Two German shepherds, Angel and Gal, exactly the color of the squash, bound through the front door. While he surely didn't choose the squash to match the dogs, the scene is a fitting introduction to a man who declares: "I'm interested in the force of color; it's an emotional and psychological force, and I have a physical reaction to it, just like hearing sound. It's sensual."
John Paul is dressed in photographic black: black polar fleece jacket (this is Maine, after all), black pants, black shirt, black boots. A close-cropped beard and waist-length ponytail complete the picture. He speaks rapidly and articulately, as if the pace of change were nipping at his heels. Standing in the two-year-old white gallery space above his studio, where every year he holds a show of his new work for two weeks in August, John Paul could be an image out of a black and white photograph. But the brilliantly colored digital images mounted on the walls here belie the starkness. With magenta-blue skies and hazard-light yellow sands, his latest landscape composites are fruit of the amazing manipulation made possible by computers.
Trained as a painter at Yale and the University of California at Santa Cruz, John Paul came to digital photography almost by accident after moving to Maine in 1989. "Most people think, Oh, it's natural you'd be a photographer since your father is this famous photographer," he says. "I'm actually surprised that I am." His mother, painter and graphic designer Eleanor Morris Caponigro, was equally an influence. "Both of my parents have been tremendous foundations for my visual growth."
Although his father taught him to photograph during two summers in college, John Paul wasn't thinking of it as a career when he moved back east with his wife from Santa Fe, where he had grown up. He had spent summers in Maine as a child while his father was teaching at the Maine Photographic Workshops, and he was drawn to the landscape — "I'm obsessed with the ocean, the water, the spare rocky coastline," he confesses — and the then-affordable real estate.
He was planning a career as an illustrator, but the realities of commercial illustration soon convinced him the fit wasn't right. "An art director would do something for commercial reasons or just because they wanted to put their imprint on it, and my interest in it would go right out the window." At that time, Kodak had set up the Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, and he became artist-in-residence, which put him on the digital path. "If that hadn't happened," he says, "my access to the technology probably would have been slower, and I wouldn't have gotten into it as deeply as I did." He had already gotten a glimpse of its potential in early adolescence, watching his mother oversee the production at Acme Press of Eliot Porter's Intimate Landscapes. "I saw the huge computer, the 'Million Dollar Coloring Book,' and I thought, I want one of those," he says. With today's technology, "I really feel I am painting with photographs."
He multitasks out of his well-lit downstairs studio ("I'm happy to be out of the darkroom and away from all those chemicals," he says), running four different businesses that employ three assistants, Apple computers, and Canon and Epson printers and scanners. "You're looking at my second mortgage," he says, gesturing to the many pieces of streamlined equipment, "which would be unmanageable without ties to corporations." He lectures and runs seminars for Canon and Epson, and conducts nine week-long intensive workshops each year out of his studio, focusing on creativity and perception as well as digital mastery, that allow him to remain closer to home and his four-year-old son, Sol. Such family connections are especially important to John Paul, whose wife, Alexandra, succumbed to cancer two years ago. He is also a gallery, producing his own fine art prints, as well as a store, since he merchandizes posters and notecards of his images. Although 80 percent of his revenues come from outside Maine, he lauds the quiet and relatively low-cost lifestyle here that allows him to get a lot done, and the commute that involves only a flight of stairs.
Digital imaging is a constantly evolving medium. "In just the fifteen years I've been in photography, I've gone through three entirely different types of processes, and the final one that I've been in for the last ten years, inkjet, has gone through four successive evolutions," he says. Until Canon came out with the 1Ds camera two years ago, he was still sometimes shooting film that he then converted to digital. The 16.7-megapixel Canon 1Ds Mark II he now uses finally has given him a digital SLR camera that offers the high-end resolution previously only available with film. "For me," he says, "film's over."
Around the corner, and into the past. Although the son describes his father as "living in my backyard," the two places feel quite separate since you can't see one house from the other and the driveways give on to different roads. Paul's house is new, built in the 1990s of still-weathering shingles. Yet there's a link: the window frames are painted the same green as his son's house.
Situated in a solitary clearing surrounded by woods, the house is slightly elevated. In front of it, carefully placed rocks and giant shells in shades of silvery-gray recall the objects that find their way into his photographs. A piece of granite upended beside the irregular stones that form the front stairs suggests a small version of the Irish megaliths that obsessed him, beginning with a 1966 Guggenheim Fellowship to Ireland.
Paul is playing the piano when I arrive, and the notes of a Bach prelude drift though the screen door. Classically trained as a pianist, music remains a source of inspiration for him. "Music awakens the emotions to a much greater degree than the physical eye that perceives and works through lenses," he says.
The large room, paneled in natural wood, where he spends most of his time gives the feeling of a space carefully arranged to suit one individual, encouraging quiet contemplation. "One needs to be still enough, observant enough, and aware enough to recognize the life of the material, to be able to 'hear through the eyes'," he has written. Windows located at the four corners of the room reveal only trees, as if nature were always available and never forgotten. There is a grand piano with a single cot in front of it, a big view camera fixed to a tripod in one corner, and on every horizontal surface the materials — wood, shells, sea-smoothed rocks, cornhusks — for the still lifes that form his current work. None of his own photographs is on display, but drawings and photographs by his son are.
Powerfully built, with large hands, a hardy head of gray hair and aging knees, the Grand Old Man of photography is smoking an unrepentant cigarette. Father and son share strong noses, bright blue eyes, and deep, radio-ready voices. After two decades of living out West, only a hint of Paul's native Boston remains in his accent. He speaks slowly, carefully, and emphatically, and you get the feeling that he might be contentious about his beliefs and working methods, though at the moment he is entirely affable. He describes himself as "a rather moody kind of guy," attuned to the muse and disinclined to habitual ways.
"When some taste of inspiration is in the air, I'll just sit quietly and wait for it to announce itself," he explains.
He has written extensively about the powerful feeling of communion with nature and the earth's mysteries that give his images a spiritual quality that transforms his subjects, instead of merely documenting them. "I am a Green Man," he says, referring to the old British icon who is so in touch with nature that green leaves grow out of his face. "I want to be able to imaginatively feel as if my feet could reach into the earth like the roots, go deeper and get into the mystery of it. That's what nourishes me."
Some of his earliest experiences with nature occurred in Maine, where his father would take the family camping or rent a cottage by a lake during their two-week summer vacation. "We'd pick blueberries and mom would bake these fabulous blueberry pies. We'd catch fish and just enjoy the woods and the beauty of Maine," he reminisces. Nature also represented an escape from school. Fortunately, his schoolhouse in Revere, Massachusetts, was located only a block from the ocean. "I was not a student," he says, shaking his head for emphasis. "Couldn't wait for the bell to ring. Then I would head straight for the sea and enjoy myself there."
He worked in a photo studio during high school, earned enough to buy his first view camera, and began to master the intricacies of a camera that shows an image as seen through the viewfinder upside down and backwards. But his real photographic education came indirectly, courtesy of the U.S. Army, which drafted him in 1953. Assigned to the Sixth Army photo lab in San Francisco, he met a civilian photographer, Benjamin Chin, who had been a student of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. "I had no idea who these people were," he says, but through Chin he was introduced to the group known as the West Coast Photographers, some of the most creative minds in fine art photography. During that year, he worked on his craft, learning to be a better printer, gaining an understanding of technique, and absorbing the work of the masters. "Photography was handed to me by the best," he says, simply.
Another posting to Arizona's Yuma Desert gave him a year to experiment, using army cameras and army materials, where, he has written, "the deep silence of the desert caused an equally deep place to resonate within me." After discharge from the army, he studied with Minor White, one of the West Coast Photographers, and he began to understand that his photographs would need to come from his heart, that he would need, as he has written, "to keep technique in the service of the meditative attitude that allowed a deeper emotional participation." In the 1960s, he became a consultant for Polaroid and began teaching photography. Since his first show in 1958 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, his work has been shown all over the United States and in Europe, and he has published numerous books, the latest in 2002, New England Days.
Represented in the collections of most major museums around the country, his photographs are beautifully composed, painstaking in their tonalities and detail. Some have achieved near legendary status. Perhaps his most celebrated image is "Running White Deer, County Wicklow, Ireland, 1967," a streak of mystically abstract deer caught against a dark fringe of trees, that he describes as "an extraordinary event, a gift handed to me by Ireland, a rather magical country." He is sometimes described as a "living bridge" between classical landscape photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and the current generation exemplified by Joel Meyerowitz. His prints can command up to $7,000 each.
After teaching many summers at the Maine Photographic Workshops, he came back to Maine full-time in 1992, living at first in his son's house, "until my son and his wife told me I had to clean up my room." He eventually bought two acres of his son's land and built a house. His downstairs studio space includes a large darkroom he calls "an indulgence" in which he develops and prints by the gelatin-silver process, as he has been doing for the last half-century, as well as an "inner sanctum," a fireproof vault for his negatives and prints.
These days, the past is very much present with him. Following an incapacitating fall in 1991, there came a six-year period when Paul didn't touch the camera at all, his energy dampened by physical and family problems. "In the summer of 1999," he says, "we threw the ashes of both my parents into the sea, where dad wanted them, and everything seemed to quiet down. And I thought, 'Oh my, What do I want to do with this open time?' "
His limited mobility meant he couldn't get into the field, so he brought it into his house, photographing still lifes that hearken back to the sunflower pictures he created in the 1960s. Shooting the arrangements in his living room with the same Dearborn and Sinar five-by-seven-inch cameras he's been using for forty years — "They treat me good, I treat them good," he says of the long relationship — he created two collections, in 1999 and again in 2004, that were shown to acclaim in galleries in New York and Santa Fe. These images, formal arrangements of natural objects such as dew-laden aspen leaves arranged symmetrically on thorny rose stalks, have the same luminous quality of all his photographs, suggesting a mystery beyond the subjects themselves.
Both father and son get impatient with questions about their similarities and differences. Their tools are different, but "I think there really is a mystical streak to the both of us, a strong sense of spirituality, a reverence for nature, and a celebration of the natural world," says John Paul. His father dismisses the common arguments about which medium is better. "There ain't no 'better,' " Paul says. "What's important, whether you continue with traditional even if we only have ten, twenty years left with it, or you do the digital, is to focus on the purpose of art: to enlighten, to nourish the spiritual aspect of man, and not to bury the heart of the artist." His son concurs: "It's all about making pictures."