Influential Books of John Paul Caponigro

“Enjoy this collection of photographic books that have influenced me during some of my most formative years.”

– John Paul Caponigro

Find out more about my influences here.

Megaliths by Paul Caponigro

#1

Paul Caponigro’s Megaliths.

Watching the production of this project from start to finish had a profound effect on me. The book was the culmination of decades of work on so many levels.

Alfred Stieglitz

#2

Alfred Stieglitz Portrait Of Georgia O’Keefe.

These portraits and nudes set the highest standards for me. Deep complex emotional connection. The variety of Stieglitz’ printing was eye opening. Meeting O’Keefe was interesting; I still wonder what it was like for her as an older woman to produce a book on her younger self.

Eliot Porter's Nature's Chaos

#3

Eliot Porter’s Nature’s Chaos.

Fortunate to see my mother design many of Porter’s books, this one confirmed my feeling that he saw a deeper order in nature before we more fully understood complexity in the sciences.

Christopher Burkett's Intimations Of Paradise

#4

Christopher Burkett’s Intimations Of Paradise.

Formerly a Gnostic monk, Burkett renounced his vows of poverty so that he could afford film and continue to faithfully transcribe The Book Of Nature. There are so many ways to live life in a sacred way

Dune / Edward Weston And Brett Weston

#5

Dune / Edward Weston And Brett Weston collects works, many never before printed, by father and son showing how similar and how different each artist’s vision was. Working with Kurt Markus to produce this book was eye-opening.

Ansel Adams / The Making Of 40 Photographs

#6

Ansel Adams / The Making Of 40 Photographs.

It’s wonderful to read how an artist works and even better to see them in action; I was lucky to do both. I do wish Adams wrote more about why he made each image and what it meant to him.

Jerry Uelsmann's Process & Perception

#7

Jerry Uelsmann’s Process & Perception.

It demonstrates how process changes perception – and the process you engage is a personal choice. The inside is just as important as the outside.

Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes

#7

Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes.

While Eliot Porter didn’t want to beautify trash through art Burtynsky turns an unflinching eye towards industrial impacts on land crafting a complex statement on land use and ultimately identity.

Minor White Manifestations Of The Spirit

#8

Minor White Manifestations Of The Spirit.

No other photographer is as articulate about the inner experience of making art. His essay in equivalence is seminal.

Wynn Bullock's Revelations

#9

Wynn Bullock’s Revelations.

Bullock’s marriage of science/physics and art
became as much a philosophical statement as a celebration of beauty.

Kenro Izu's Sacred Places

#10

Kenro Izu’s Sacred Places.

Izu tries to photograph the spirit of ancient sacred places. When he talks about atmosphere he means more than weather.

Chris Rainier's Keepers Of The Spirit

#11

Chris Rainier’s Keepers Of The Spirit.

If Edward Curtis met Joseph Campbell you’d get Rainier’s survey of spirituality in world cultures.

Sebastiao Salgado's An Uncertain Grace

#12

Sebastiao Salgado’s An Uncertain Grace.

Salgado sets the bar high by bringing out the dignity within his subjects no matter how undignified their circumstances.

oyce Tenneson's Transformations

#13

Joyce Tenneson’s Transformations.

Tenneson’s images remind me of what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Arnold Newman's One Mind's Eye

#14

Arnold Newman’s One Mind’s Eye

Beautifully constructed portraits from the father of environmental portraiture.

Harry Callahan

#15

Harry Callahan

The rest of his wrestlessly inventive work intrigued me but his deeply honest extended portrait of his wife set a standard I hope for in all others.

Sugimoto

#16

Sugimoto

It’s minimalism that isnt shallow or evasive; the collection reinforces the concept, creating a context for itself. It asks so many questions? Enough? Not enough? Do all the world’s oceans look the same? Or is it just one ocean? Is it the camera or the artist who makes them look the same? Is it the way we look? How is it that by looking at them long enough I begin to see myself?

 Richard Misrach's The Sky Book

#17

Richard Misrach’s The Sky Book

Pleasant as it is this minimalism ordinarily wouldn’t be enough for me. But then he adds the titles of time and places in many languages with a history. Together they grow stronger and placed within his life work as one of many Desert Cantos they grow stringer still. Rebecca Solnit’s accompanying essay is excellent. I learned a lot from looking at this – about art and myself.

Witkin

#18

Witkin

I find Joel Peter Witkin’s work profoundly challenging. I can’t say I love it; I can’t say I hate it. I can say it continually crosses back and forth between self-indulgently expressing his individual perversions and courageously looking unflinchingly into a universal heart of darkness.

Michael Kenna's Night Work

#19

Michael Kenna’s Night Work

Kenna’s elegant minimalism is laced with a quiet spirituality that comes less from tradition and more from being in the moment, growing most emotional when he’s in the dark.

Huntington Witherill's Orchestrating Icons

#20

Huntington Witherill’s Orchestrating Icons

It’s musical for its flowing compositions and exquisite tonalities. Extraordinary separation in extreme highlights and shadows, no one prints quite like him in.

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For more reading material, go to:

http://johnpaulcaponigro.com/creativity/reading/

If he wasn’t the first, Aaron Siskind was certainly the preeminent abstract expressionist photographer. The abstract details he presents as new hyper-flat surfaces stand independent of their original subjects.

Abstraction in non-representational art celebrated in the modernist movement early 20th century has taken many forms; Kandinsky’s expressionism, Piccasso’s Cubism, Malevich’s a Constructivism, Stella’s Minimalism, Vasarely’s Op Art, etc) While photography quickly became the gold-standard of realism and consequently it took it longer than painting to embrace abstraction. (It’s arguable that the invention of photography forced painting to embrace abstraction.) Siskind’s images helped establish photography’s credibility as an abstract art.

But what kind of abstraction is Siskind’s abstraction? And what is the function of abstraction in Siskind’s work? Coming late to the game his work aggregates many previous sensibilities and ideas.

Like so many modernist’s he emphasized that what he made was not a representation of something else but “the thing itself” – an idea that has metamorphosed chimera-like since the Greeks and been repurposed by nonrepresentational artists and realists alike. But, while most modernists took pains to avoid including elements that suggest figurative images, Siskind’s images are peppered with them and because of their photographic nature they always reference something else, no matter how covertly. Like Jackson Pollock, Siskind prized directness and immediacy of expression but the personal authenticity derived from this becomes ironic given the essentially appropriative nature of photography. Like Franz Kline, Siskind’s images are riddled with poetic gesture, but none of the gestures in his images are made by hand or by him. Like Wassily Kandinsky, Siskind drew an analogy between his images and musical scores or performances, never mind that he worked without color or purely with tone.

Siskind’s abstraction defies resolution. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Siskind’s abstraction is that so many forms of abstraction and the ideas behind them coalesce into a single arena, the photographic frame.

Siskind’s work fascinated me instantly because in representing so little it demonstrated so much. A literal recording can be supremely abstract. Sometimes a photograph looks nothing like the thing photographed. To photograph is to transform. (And there are many ways to bring about transformation and many kinds of transformations.) A photograph is never the thing it represents and never just a photograph.

Find out more about my influences here.

 

Edward Burtynsky’s photographs deftly weave together aspects of a well-researched documentary expose and a beautifully constructed formal artistic statement, but it’s unclear which is more dominant, or if they’re something else entirely.

Burtynsky let’s the things he photographs speak for themselves. Yet he photographs specific kinds of things, related things; oil fields, mines, railways, highways, manufacturing plants, dumps and salvage yards, etc. More than the specific things he photographs it may be these relationships that he’s ultimately photographing. And like the effects of the global industrial complex his work has a cumulative effect.

Despite the restrained yet shocking quality of his images, Burtynsky claims not to be critical of industry and presents himself simply as a witness to the monumental changes man makes to land. At first his stance seems simple but the more one considers it the more complex it becomes, almost to the point of becoming enigmatic.

“I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.”

It might be easier to draw a clear line between us (the consumers) and them (the manufacturers), but Burtynsky doesn’t, because there isn’t one. Because of his approach, his work is richer, more layered, more nuanced and perhaps more relevant. Perhaps.

It can be tempting to think of advocacy for a cause as a matter of making a social statement for one thing and against another. But the issues and the approaches needed are much more complex. I appreciate that Burtynsky doesn’t take a simplistic cliched antagonistic stance towards industry. There can be no ecological solution without a related economic solution. I relate to his emphasis of a Rorschach-like quality of seeing, which involves and in the best of cases encourages self-reflection. Individual responsibility/action and connection/interaction is highlighted. Since I was a young man I’ve felt the standard ways of using photography for environmental advocacy, though they fulfill an important function, were not effective enough on their own and that new approaches are needed. Burtynsky offers one alternative and encourages me to think of others.

View Edward Burtynsky’s TED talk here.

Find out more about my influences here.

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I find Joel-Peter Witkin’s photography supremely challenging. It would be easy to write his work off as sensational (His images are so shocking they make headlines.), perverse (His models are, if alive, unusual body types including dwarves and hermaphrodites, if dead, cadavers, amputations, skeletons, and carrion, while his props often include sado-masochistic paraphernalia and torture devices.), and contrived (He reproduces historic masterworks in his own dark way.). But that would be too easy.

Witkin’s work challenges me to look at things I turn away from and my own denial. There’s an unusual beauty in his work. This beauty is drawn from much more than exceptional print quality, which though chaotically distressed and painted is nonetheless crafted masterfully. In his best work Witkin transcends the fleeting beauty found on the surfaces of things and penetrates deeper to find a more enduring beauty that lies below the surface – in the most unexpected places and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. I think it takes wisdom to see beauty (especially unconventional beauty) and that beauty imparts wisdom.

Witkin doesn’t consider the things he’s photographing taboo or ugly. He claims to simply acknowledge their existence and to have found beauty within them. Thus he doesn’t think his work aestheticizes negativity, perversion, or violence.  For this to be absolutely true he would need the unerring powers of a saint. Sometimes he misses the mark, either from aiming at the wrong target, a misdirection born out of a calculation designed to impress rather than a passion designed to transform, or from not penetrating deeply enough, perhaps he is not as unflinching as he would lead us to believe. But, he is always courageous and dares to explore in depth what few ever dare to glimpse.

The true task of looking at Witkin’s work is found in differentiating which of Witkin’s images transcends cleverness – not all of them do – to achieve true insight – those that do offer a most unusual substance. The true reward of looking at Witkin’s work is … The shock his best work produces is not the kind of shock that quickly passes leaving me looking for the next big rush. The shock his best work produces haunts me long after I’ve seen his work, sometimes never passing. Appreciating Witkin’s images leaves me more aware, perhaps more alive, potentially wiser, and never unchanged.

Witkin challenges me to flinch less, or if I flinch, to find the courage to continue looking and moving forward. He reminds me that the apprehension of beauty and the wisdom derived from it is made stronger by acknowledging and perhaps coming to a better understanding of the darker aspects of existence.

Find out more about my influences here.

The following images contain nudity. The choice to continue looking is yours.

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No other photographer is more influential to me than Eliot Porter – save my father. I knew Eliot through my mother’s long collaboration with him designing and overseeing the production of over twelve of his books during my formative years. His influences on me are too numerous and wide-ranging to list them all here. A few stand out from the rest.

Eliot was a pioneer who elevated the use of, appreciation of, and collectability of color within the medium of photography, aligning his distinctive style with the subtle and complex palette of nature.

Eliot was probably the most widely published fine art photographer of his day. He was at the forefront of a handful of photographers that defined a style that would later characterize an entire genre of photographic environmental advocacy. It was during the production of Eliot’s book Intimate Landscapes where I was first introduced to digital imaging. When I saw the Scitex machines used in the 1970s I instantly wanted to use them for artistic rather than commercial purposes, but thought it might be a lifetime before I could afford what my mother called a “million dollar coloring book” until I got my own copy of the first version of Adobe Photoshop, which was a dream come true. The posters my mother designed to promote the book and exhibit ultimately became some of the Metropolitan Museum’s most successful, far exceeding the reach of the originals. I learned that an artist’s effectiveness could be dramatically extended beyond rare original works of art through publications made available to large audiences.

James Gleick’s (the author who popularized complexity sciences and fractal geometry in his best-selling book Chaos) choice to join forces with Eliot on their book Nature’s Chaos confirmed my opinion that Eliot had intuitively sensed a deeper order in nature than was conventionally seen and portrayed this in his images. Eliot’s background and continuing interest in the sciences informed his art.

Eliot described his book The Place No One Knew, a portrait of Glen Canyon before it was flooded by a dam, as a eulogy because it was released after the flood waters began rising and affected public opinion too late to stop the destruction of the canyon’s destruction. Hearing about both the successes and failures of advocacy through the arts, I decided that while I wanted to make my own contributions in this area, that there were plenty of other artists contributing in similar ways, and that new ways were also needed. He knew this when he threw down the gauntlet one day and said to me, “You know, it’s going to be your generation that decides whether we will hand down a habitable environment to future generations.”

Even more influential to me than his photographs was the man. In his 70’s and 80’s, Eliot was physically fit (walking 5 miles a day), adventurous (travelling to remote locations like Iceland and Antarctica), mentally sharp as a tack (loving intelligent respectful debates with anyone of any age or background and often playing the devil’s advocate just to see where the conversation and the other person would go), and actively socially conscientious (continuing his long-standing participation in organizations like the Sierra Club. He was a shining example in so many ways.

Find out more about my influences here.

Adam Fuss’ photograms encourage you to think about photography, in different ways and much more broadly. His life-sized camera-less photograms represent one man’s attempt to work with, explore, and see subjects, media, and perception more directly. By making camera-less images, Fuss eliminates many distortions inherent in optical systems that employ lenses.

The turning point in Adam Fuss’ work came when he accidentally processed a piece of film that recorded only a grain of dust and its shadow. He had the sensitivity to see something extraordinary in this ordinary moment. Since then, he’s explored many ways of making photograms, including producing images from the chemical reactions created by photosensitive materials coming in contact with viscera and decaying objects.

Fuss’ photograms highlight the idea of the photograph as a trace made by light that has come in direct contact with the thing recorded. Fuss takes this one step further in his photograms, as the objects, not just the light reflected from them, literally make contact with the recording device, which becomes the final art object. Akin to abstract painting, the thing made represents itself more than the subject.

In Fuss’ work, the absence of light reveals as much or more as the presence of light, reversing our conventional expectations of photographs (‘light-drawings’). This is more than just ironic – it’s insightful.

Like Plato’s The Allegory Of The Cave, where men raised in a cave are bound in such a way that they only see shadows and mistake them for the real things not just reflections of reality, Fuss’ photograms ask us to consider the limited nature of our perceptions and not to confuse the recordings we make with the things themselves.

Who are your influences?

Find out more about my influences here.

Read my extended conversation with Adam Fuss here.

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