by Fabio Amodeo
This article first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Photo.
Fabio Amodeo You are seen as an advocate of an integration between traditional process and digital ones. Is it a proper perception? And do you advocate this road only for you, or do you suggest it is the "right" way in our times for the generality of artists, particularly photographers?
John Paul Caponigro I share my experience with others. I don't think every artist needs to make the digital transition. I do think that in time the larger world of photography will. In fact it is, now. I have. The freedoms the new technology allows serve my vision. Many think that to work digitally one has to make work that looks manipulated when in fact it can look very conventional. Many don't realize that the majority of images they see in reproduction or on television are digital images. Digital technology offers extraordinary control for any photographer. It is in the end only a tool. As such it can be placed in the service of any vision. I could choose to continue to work traditionally, and I continue to make a few images that look traditional, but I choose to work digitally because of the extraordinary control it offers.
FA Would you think it is possible to work without the digital part of your creative process? Is it "here to stay", or do you believe that one day or another you may go back to traditional techniques?
JPC While I do the work I do today in large part because of digital technology, I continue to use traditional techniques. Put the fact that I still use film capture and I expect that to change soon aside, I'm sure I will continue to deal with f-stops, ISO's, depth of field, shutter speeds, the zone system, light, and color indefinitely. My traditional technique serves as my foundation. This is true in the field of painting as well. I still make preliminary sketches for many of my images in watercolor. Recently I've been doing studies in pastel. I don't expect to go back because I have never left. Similarly I don't expect to stop working digitally. Both ways of working serve the process of looking differently. They both foster different ways of seeing as well as working. The first, vision, is more important than the second, method. I find it fascinating to engage in both ways. Working in one way can clarify working in the other.
FA For a long time, photographers (and collectors and museum curators) have been obsessed with the idea of photography as a vanishing medium. The fact that the medium is sensible to light, and that you have to "fix" it to make it permanent, has always been a hidden phantom in the minds of many people dealing with photography. Today, with digital processing, the question arises again: how can I "fix" it? How can I be certain my work is going to last forever (or almost)? So the question is: do you think it is a right question? And how do you solve it in your work? In practical terms: which is the output you prefer?
JPC There are two very interesting undercurrents to your questions.
One is archival quality. It's one question; there is no one right question. While I value it, I choose a medium because of its beauty first and its permanence second. Everything passes, nothing is truly permanent. It is more important that the life a thing or person leads is vital and that that life passes with dignity and grace. A great deal of scientific testing has been and continues to be done. We should be mindful that photography is a little more than 150 years old and that many of the media we use today are a few years or a few decades old. The reality is we can make educated guesses but we really don't know how long a thing will last. Henry Wilhelm is perhaps the world's foremost authority on the longevity of photographic prints. Here are his best hypotheses - Lysonic inks for Epson and Iris Giclee prints last 125 years, Fuji Crystal Archive c paper lasts 75 years, Ilfochrome lasts 29 years, Kodak c paper lasts 18 years. These figures are very conservative, as they should be. I haven't seen figures for silver gelatin and platinum, most think they will last 200 years or more. Many don't realize the implications of these figures. In short, any kind of print can be made from a digital file and many of the new digital printing methods outlast and outperform traditional print media. I use the Giclee (digital) and platinum (traditional) mediums not because they last but because they are beautiful. Their velvety matte surfaces are sensual. They remind me of the papers I paint on.
The other very interesting theme that arises within your question is the notion of impermanence. One of the reasons I have moved towards photography from painting is its ability to capture the ephemeral - the wash of a wave, a changeable cloud, a trail of smoke, the shifting sands of a dune, a specific gesture or expression. Making more permanent records of the impermanent seems to me to be an inescapable part of photography. What's wonderful is that this act changes the way we see and experience the world.
FA After all is said and done, a digital process is something virtual. You are dealing with pixels, which do not exist in the "real" world, if the thing means anything. Don't you miss the "physical" part of art, including photography, the smells, the materials, the signs, the pressure of the hand? Do you ever feel that pixels are anaesthetizing?
JPC Because my roots are in painting, I have always felt that photography (traditional or digital) by comparison created a distance between the artist and the world, for better or worse. In painting things are rendered manually over a substantial period of time. In photography the world renders itself, often in the blink of an eye. This is both an asset and a liability. The difference between silver and silicon seems minor in comparison. I still have yet to learn to love mark making on the computer. As a result if I am going to use a piece of calligraphy or a drawn element I prefer to render it traditionally and then scan it. In the end both painting and photography lead us to look more closely at the world and the way we look at it. In so doing they bring us closer to it. It's vision and relationship not the process or material that brings us into contact with the world and ourselves. A lively application of any craft will create a greater depth of connection than an unconscious application, even if it is meticulous. And that's what it's all about - connecting.
FA You have been teaching "digital creativity" quite for a while. Is there any most frequent question?
JPC The most asked question is certainly "How do I do it?" and there are a thousand easy answers. But the real answer, which is much harder to answer, can only be answered by the one who asks the question. The real answer is another question "What do you want to do?" or "Why do you do it?"
Most of my colleagues agree that, while the most wonderful aspects of working digitally are the many freedoms it affords, the most difficult aspect to overcome is this flood of new possibilities. It is very easy to become seduced by technology, but the really good work occurs when the technology is placed in the service of a human vision.
FA Are you influenced in your work by the human contact with your pupils?
JPC I'm constantly influenced by my students. When I first start a workshop I take care to note that we are all students and we are all teachers. My students not only ask me technical questions I wouldn't have thought to pursue but occasionally they also ask me questions about my own work which I find very stimulating. They challenge me to be as clear as I can possibly be. That makes me grow.
FA Commercial work is somehow "tighter" than art. You have to deal with costs, time schedules, the likings of your client or your art director. Do you think the approach to digital photography by the commercial photographer should be different from yours? Is there anything he should (or should not) do, and that you can afford to do (or not do)?
JPC Though some approaches tend to work better than others, there are no "shoulds". Working for someone else is quite different than working for yourself. There will always be times when what pleases you may not please another person. This is true of both "commercial" and "fine" art. In one case you get feedback during the process, in the other case you get feedback after the process. In one case you have a single known definite client, in another you have many unknown potential clients. You can learn from anything, anyone, and any process. The point is to keep learning. Every artist will find a balance between "commercial" art and "fine" art, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is both. And curiously the balancing point will shift over the course of an individual's lifetime. We'd all like to find the great equation to explain how this works but in the end life proves too complex to be solved. It can only be lived. Everyone and every situation is unique, which is wonderful. It would benefit any working artist to do work for someone else and work for themselves. I think it's especially important that one continues to do some work for oneself. Our personal vision is what distinguishes us from one another, it is our greatest asset and the key to lasting success.
FA "In this phase of the evolution, digital artist tend to do all the same work, as they are still overwhelmed by the medium and none controls it yet". True or false?
JPC To note this tendency is correct but the statement is flawed because of the use of the word none. There are a few artists who, rather than being controlled by it, control the medium. This is the essence of success in any artistic endeavor. We are in the infancy of a new art form and the cross pollination of many existing art forms. Access to technology is still limited. As time passes, all this will change. Digital technology will one day be ubiquitous. In time there will be more artists working digitally and more good work done digitally. I look forward to the day when the question "Is it digital?" is meaningless. The tool is ultimately unimportant. What is done with it is what's important