John Paul Caponigro
by Ray Vitiello
This article first appeared on the Mamiya website.
RV: When I look at your background I find it difficult to find a place to start. So I thought perhaps we might get a start by learning about your younger years. Students are wild to know about that from mentors. what their childhood was like, how their growing up was, and what moved them in the direction that they ended up in.
JPC: I grew up in an artistic family. My mother was a painter who later became a graphic designer. She did the production of a lot of very well known fine art books - my father’s, Alfred Steiglitz’s Portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, Gustav LeGray, and many, many others. My father is a fine art photographer, who taught workshops and exhibited at galleries and museums. Between the two of them, there was always a parade of famous artists to watch.
RV: You were always around the camera, I take it?
JPC: The camera was always around. It’s interesting, I've been reflecting on that now that I have been using a small digital camera. I’ve taken more family photographs in this first year of my son’s life than my father has taken during my entire life. When I was growing up, photography was considered to be something serious. It was fine art. There are other uses for photography. I had access to paint very early on and that quickly became my medium. I didn’t have as easy access to photographic materials. That may have been due to the cost and fragility of camera, film, of processing. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to consider photography as a medium for my own creative endeavors. I was in college. I was using photographs as reference for paintings. I thought at the very least I should learn how to make good reference materials. But I also questions about the medium. I was impressed by photographs that were highly metaphoric - an apple suggested a galaxy, a pepper suggested a nude. I was also impressed by photographs that were extremely abstract; there were photorealistic representations that presented images that no longer looked real.
RV: So your background is really that of an artist – of a painter?
JPC: That is where I started. I am, and always have been, interested in creating images not just capturing images. That is why digital technology suits my vision so well. I don’t think I would be practicing photography today if it weren’t for access to PhotoShop, which makes that a reality. I saw digital technology very early on when my mother was overseeing the production of Eliot Porter’s Intimate Landscapes book. After a week of 18 hour day press checks, for being a good boy and sitting under the table and quietly making my drawings or napping, they gave me a tour of the Scitex room. My mother jokingly referred to these things as “million dollar coloring books”. They cost millions of dollars and even in the early 70’s access to them cost several hundred dollars an hour. The minute I saw what they could do, I wanted one. I immediately thought, “What if an artist could use one of these? And then I thought, “How on earth is an artist going to be able to afford this?” Maybe one day. I thought it would be much, much later in my life when I might have access to this kind of technology. I had no idea that it would come much sooner than I expected. In the early ‘90s, a MacIntosh and PhotoShop costing roughly $5,000 did more than that million dollar coloring book. Then access to photorealistic printers was very difficult. Now for a few hundred dollars an Epson printer can outperform traditional color printing processes and the prints they make outlast them too. It’s only very recently that we have seen 35mm SLRs, such as the Canon D1S, begin to produce digital files that outresolves and has a greater dynamic range than film. Every year there’s something new. It has been a very interesting journey.
RV: That is fascinating. What kind of an educational background do you have?
JPC: I have a liberal arts education. I went through prep school. I went to Yale. Yale was pushing abstract expressionism at the time. That wasn’t for me. I got a great deal out of the writing department when I was there. I’m not sure I would have considered writing professionally were it not for the encouragement I got there. I decided to make a change after two years and finished my education in California at the University of Santa Cruz. It was a bold move. It was a good one. I got a great education in education. I ran into two completely different philosophies of learning and two different bureaucracies. Both were very valuable. At the end of that I was interested in knowing how to make a good painting and I felt that I hadn’t learned the kind of skill that I was interested in acquiring in either place. I devoted myself to acquiring the skill that I was looking for after my education. It took a little longer than I was expected. But the timing was perfect. Just as I acquired the skill I was looking for, PhotoShop came into my life. I was working on a series of drawings from photographs that I realized could be turned back into photographic images. Photographic images that were created, not just captured.
RV: What was your first job? What did you do for a living when you got started?
JPC: Experience has come to me over many years in many different ways. I helped my father from time to time and that provided a very valuable exposure to the medium and its processes. I helped my mother in her design studio and that made me familiar with the world of editing, design, and reproduction. After college I took a job at a commercial lab to learn other skills and became familiar with that world. I did illustration. I started writing for state newspapers and that led to writing for national magazines and finally to books. I became an artist in residence at Kodak’s Center for Creative Imaging and laid the foundation for my work in digital imaging. That led to teaching. All the while, I kept doing my work. I kept my eye on the big picture. I had a long-term plan. I learned from my mistakes. Through experience I grew more able to make the most of opportunities when they arose. If you told me then that I would be doing what I’m doing now, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet, I find what I am doing to be absolutely perfect for me. There were many surprises and realizations along the way that I could never have predicted. Some were painful and others were delightful. They all helped me get here.
RV: How would you describe yourself as a photographer? Do you see yourself more as a photographer or as a digital image manipulator, or as something that we haven’t thought of yet?
JPC: I consider myself a visual artist. My background is in painting. I still paint. I do preparatory sketches for many of my compositions. I’m experimenting with video. I consider myself an artist whose trade is images. I don’t consider myself attached to any one particular tradition. I’m interested in the convergence of many traditions. Digital technology is bringing many different cultures, ideas, and disciplines together. It is the fusion of all of those that I find so interesting. This approach carries more responsibility. I have to understand the history and practices of all of those traditions to be able to operate with them in a sophisticated way. But it’s also very exciting and stimulating. I can draw from a much larger pool of possibilities. Access to digital technology has completely changed the way that I think about making images, even though I was trained traditionally both as a photographer and a painter. I find the hardest thing currently is not keeping up with the pace of the evolution of the technology, but it has always been rethinking the foundations of my visual education. To think of making different kinds of images in new ways as a result of using a new process, that is still the challenge for me.
RV: When you go out with the camera these days, are you looking for something on which you can improve or are you looking for something which becomes your reference to work on? How does that go?
JPC: That’s a great question. It such a great question I ask myself that question every day that I go out and photograph. I like to play the full spectrum. I realize there are many possible ways of using a medium. I don’t insist that I have to use it in only one way. Even though I am known for altered imagery, 20% of the work is actually very traditional - but it looks altered. On the other hand, if a traditional photographer looked at my contact sheets, they would ask, “Where’s the composition?” Typically, I photograph with an eye towards creating another composition, one which incorporates elements from other sources taken at different times, perhaps even ones that have not yet been made. What happens in the editing process, on the light table, when I am looking at transparencies, is as important to me as what happens when I am on location. There are also times when I use the camera as a sketch book. At times like these, there is an idea embedded in the image, but I know that the material in the image won’t be used in the final product. It’s only a sketch for something else to be found in the future. Many times I will wake up at night, with pen and paper at the side of my bed, and when images come to me in a dream and I sketch them. Sometimes it takes years to get to those images. Some of those images never get revisited. I realized years ago that I had more sketches in my files than I could possibly accomplish in a lifetime. That was very frustrating at first. Why all of this possibility and not enough means to realize it? In time, I found that in making the decisions that were required to do the next show or to create a body of work that I had to make a commitment to certain kinds of material and not others. Those decisions, though at first painful, had a profound impact on me. The decisions I made then forced me to clarifying my vision. Accomplishing that was far more important than accomplishing it all.
RV: So you are really very rich in the respect that you have a tremendous body of ideas to work from?
JPC: Yes. And the ideas keep coming.
RV: Where do the ideas come from? Is there just a boiling caldron?
JPC: I like the boiling caldron theory. Today’s lifestyles are overstimulating. We have access to more information than we can put to use. It’s hard to find the center. That’s exactly what I think it’s most important to do. Mastering a medium is more than a matter of mastering craft or history, it’s also a matter of mastering yourself. Both take time. And the learning never stops. The creative process is just that - a process. The journey is the destination. The best work comes out of the fabric of our lives, the things that haunt us, the things we love and the things we fear, the things that we have made the deepest commitments to. We don’t always choose those things, sometimes they choose us. But we can choose how we relate to them. We choose and in doing so we make ourselves. Some ways of being are more fundamental than others. There is a universal ground that we can find in our humanity. To find the universal we very often have to go very deeply into the personal. I think you have to immerse yourself in life to access this dimension. Once you find it, you’ll find there is no substitute for it. But it’s elusive. There is no one path that can take you there. The poet Antonio Machado said, “Caminando se hace caminos.” Or, “In walking, we make paths.” The answer is you. But you won’t know who you are until you make the journey. Even then you’ll be changed by the journey so you’ll have to continue travelling. With practice, you do learn to recognize an authentic voice and an inspired moment. That’s all you can hope for. But that’s good. You wouldn’t want your story to be predictable would you? This can sound vague to the western mind. Let me see if I can put it another way. We work to learn. We work to learn about ourselves and our world. What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see. This sets up a continuous feedback loop. The quest for understanding has many destinations and no end.
RV: Do you feel that you have a mission in life?
JPC: I wouldn’t choose that word. I’m not out to convert anyone to my particular point of view. I think the strength of a community can be measured by the diversity it can embrace.
I would like to make a positive contribution to my community. At the end of it all, I would like to know that I made a difference – to my family, my friends, to my colleagues, to the larger community.
I am and have always been very concerned about the environment. When I was young, I spoke a great deal about with Eliot Porter. He and I agreed that overpopulation and desertification were the two most pressing ecological issues of our time. We also agreed that it would fall upon my generation to find solutions or we would be passing on a greatly diminished quality of life and perhaps an uninhabitable environment to future generations.
RV: Do you find that your work in any way addresses this concern that you have?
JPC: It does. I haven’t set out to create political exposes or document a vanishing splendor. Instead, I chose to make visual poems. Having read Blake, I hold onto the hope that political issues flow naturally out of the concerns of being human. Early on, I asked myself the question, “How do you photograph nature in a new way? Can a new light be shed on the situation? How do you contribute to the ongoing cultural dialog rather than repeat what has been said before?” Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams did tremendous things for the environment, for which I thank them, but that approach hasn’t effected enough serious change. I have been asking me, are there other ways that we can create images that will inspire people to care enough to get involved and make the difference that is required for a sustainable future? If my work could inspire more people to get involved and make a difference in their own unique ways then I would truly feel that I had made a significant contribution.
There is a reason I photograph wastelands. You don’t need to read Muir to understand what has happened to the central valley in California. It would help many to read Audubon to understand what has happened in the Everglades. Many wouldn’t consider images of the ocean to be pictures of wastelands. Read Cousteau. The rate of extinction that has taken place in the last century is on par with other ages of extinction, such as the disappearance of the dinosaurs. We are the agents of this cataclysm. If we have such power, we can also choose to be agents of positive change. I hope we make that choice.
RV: A natural question would be, if you were such a visionary, a person of such imagination that you can envision anything, why would you choose to use a big camera, a medium format camera, rather than just a point and shoot? Or something else?
JPC: The Mamiya 645 AF Pro I use is the largest camera that I can easily hand hold. I wrap it around my wrist, fill my pockets with film, and take a walk. I found myself in Lake Tahoe at Sand Beach walking way out across a series of rocks, a couple of hundred feet into the water, out into the lake itself. I started laughing out there. I must have looked like a madman. My wife was on that trip. She said, “Are you finally losing it?” I realized that if I had been using my 4x5 view camera, the one I was trained with originally, I never would have taken that walk and had the experience, much less seen what I saw, or brought back the images that were made during it. The tools that you use very definitely influence your creative process. They influence the final result. The 645 format has over three times the information found in a 35mm original. I can make larger prints and work with a wider range of scale. And, I can find more of unexpected details in the final images. Size matters. I’m saying too large a camera would inhibit my creative process, while a larger original facilitates it. The 645 format is the best balance I’ve found to date. It’s not too large and it’s not too small.
Your question has another interesting dimension. You could also ask, “Why use photography?” We can imagine a great deal. But there is a fabulous wealth of detail, a complexity, an unexpectedness that we find in reality. It is one of the things that I find most challenging and most interesting about photographic images. Photography is a passport to go out and explore a world that is far richer than I could ever have imagined. It challenges me to expand my awareness of the world.
RV: Why medium format? You obviously have all the tools that you could possibly want at your disposal and yet you have chosen for some of your work medium format.
JPC: I choose my materials because of their flexibility. I find that medium format offers me the best balance between the resolution of large format and the mobility of small format. It represents the middle ground where you get both high resolution and portability. You have the freedom to make the journey and the assurance that you will bring back high quality originals. I choose medium format for versatility. That’s one of the reasons I chose Mamiya. Mamiya makes the zoom lenses I rely on. I carry two lenses with me at all times. This makes sense for someone who needs to think in many different ways and make many different kinds of images. Versatility is essential.
RV: Where are you in the digital camera versus the shoot film and scan it story?
JPC: Three years ago I used 100% film. Last year I used 25% digital capture and 75% film. I expect my use of film to dwindle to nothing. I expect that to happen very rapidly with the Canon 35mm SLR I use. I don’t know when it will happen with medium format, specifically the Mamiya 645. I’m looking for resolution equal to or greater than film and all of the flexibility and convenience of using a film camera. If I can access that at a reasonable cost, which would be a cost in excess of a film camera or back as I realize once I go digital I won’t be paying for film and processing or taking the time to scan it, then I’ll make the transition to a fully digital workflow. I suspect that time is very near. I’m not attached to film, or a specific material, I’m attached to specific image qualities. When digital capture can deliver those qualities, along with a combination of flexibility and affordability, the choice will be very clear.
I have questions about how I will access my images as digital files. The file browser in PhotoShop is very different than a light table. Looking at and editing my transparencies is an important part of my creative process. Sensed but unseen connections between different images become clear and unexpected conjunctions arise. I don’t currently find the same level of flexibility when accessing digital files. I’m quite sure this will evolve very rapidly.
Digital files have offer new flexibilities, freedoms, and conveniences. You can output them on any media. You need to do less retouching but if you choose to you can do much more sophisticated retouching. The technical controls are astonishing. You don’t have to take field notes. Soon every file will have GPS, compass direction, and altimeter information in addition to the current information found in the metadata. This has wonderful possibilities for documentary photographers. Think of what that kind of information would do for Mark Klett’s rephotographing the west project. This kind of information will make future photographic archives even more useful. It’s a very interesting time for photography.
RV: Where do you see the whole digital thing going? It seems as though there are two camps now. There’s one camp of people that are very much involved in film. The shoot it, scan it, print it world. They see that world continuing for the foreseeable future. There’s another camp of people who have gone 100% digital.
JPC: We’re experiencing a time of a great transition. I don’t think there is one answer for every photographer. People have different needs. People have different aptitudes. People have different comfort zones. Technology doesn’t produce images. People do. Technology serves the needs of people. I do think that in the future, in the very near future, film will largely disappear. The technical arguments that people who stay with film use to justify their choice are becoming less and less valid. Digital capture now offers higher resolution, greater dynamic range, greater color fidelity. It doesn’t always offer greater economy or convenience and these are not insignificant factors. They are factors that are changing very rapidly. In a few years they will no longer be factors. There are some photographers who maintain that images captured on film have a certain look and feel that digital capture does not. That look and feel can be simulated. Film is a technology whose time will pass, just as paper and glass negatives passed before film. Photography is a medium that will never pass, but like everything else it will change. Our positive participation in the medium now will help ensure the changes it passes through will be positive ones.
RV: You see lots and lots and lots of students. Do you have any advice for students who are looking to get involved in photography that really don’t know where they are going?
JPC: Yes. It’s okay not to know everything. In fact, it’s even an important part of the artistic process. Discovery is the most important part of the artistic process and you can’t discover anything if you know everything. So it’s okay not to know who you are and where you are going. To some degree, you never want to lose that state of being. Maintain the openness and receptivity it brings.
At the same time, it’s important to be clear about your objectives and to try and clarify your artistic process. It helps to have a goal and a point of view. It’s important to master your craft. But it’s also important not to let your craft master you.
Making images is a visual dialogue. It’s a dialog with the world, with a medium, with yourself, and with the history of all these elements. If you look to your life and the things that you love, the things that you surround yourself with, the things that you are passionate about, the answers that you are looking for will come naturally out of those areas. It takes time. Keep going. It’s a journey worth making. Discovering an authentic voice is a matter of recognizing the riches you never knew that you had and speaking honestly about them with passion. Making art is a process. The artistic process entails finding an optimal balance between knowing what you are doing and being open to new possibilities and between mastering your craft and not letting the craft master you. The optimal balancing point will change from day to day. So will you.
RV: Are you an advocate of formal photo education or are you an advocate of the do it yourself school?
JPC: I am advocate of individuals. I realize that there are many different types of people, who have different learning styles and ways of relating to the world. There isn’t a one size fits all solution. Some people they aren’t cut out for a formal education. A formal education can even be harmful to the development of certain types of people. Other types of people can benefit tremendously from a formal education. It can provide a wonderful foundation to build on and create a resource you can draw on for the rest of your life. If you’re not sure which way to go, it’s good to expose yourself to the possibilities. A respect for tradition is very healthy. At the same time, reverence for it is not. Don’t let anyone tell you that their answers are the only valid answers. The most important thing is to find your answers. You can’t live someone else’s truth, you can only live your own. An education should be about learning to learn. The learning never stops. You can learn something anywhere, anytime, from anyone.
RV: Now, we know that you have done a wonderful book and we hear that you have two others in the works?
JPC: Yes. The second edition to Adobe PhotoShop Master Class is complete. Aside from being OSX and Photoshop 7 compatible it offers 50% more material.
I’m writing a second technical book on color. Color photography is going through an extraordinary evolution. We have now have staggering control over color. It has been overlooked by some of the more sensational aspects of digital imaging, such as filtration or compositing. I think we’ll get back to the basics in a very short time. Photographers need the color theory that painters have.
We’re preparing a third book, a monograph, a collection of my images of water.
RV: How much of the writing do you do yourself?
JPC: I do all of the writing.
RV: So you are really a multifaceted artist?
JPC: Writing is an important component of my artistic process. I find a great deal of inspiration in the work of other writers. I find that writing help me clarify my intentions and goals. At a certain point pictures should be seen and not heard. But pictures are inevitably surrounded by texts. People talk about them. Critics write about them. You might as well get involved. I found it painful to do at first but with practice and time I’ve found this process to be very helpful to me artistically. Your artistic process and identity becomes much clearer if you put it into words. I wrote an article for Communication Arts this summer entitled Making the Visual Verbal. This is something that, throughout my career, I have been called to do and I’ve found a great deal of benefit from doing it.
I find that one artistic discipline can inform another. By practicing many art forms I have a much wider pool of possibilities to draw from and many more sources of inspiration to draw from. Synthesis and synergy. I’m interested in finding a way to put it all together. I hope the combinations that arise produce something more than the sum of their parts.
RV: Wow. We could go on forever but we should probably wrap it up now.
JPC: We could go on for some time, but we’ve covered the essentials. People can see and read a great deal more (technical tips, artist’s statements, interviews, galleries as well as information on my workshops) on my website – www.johnpaulcaponigro.com.