Born in Boston in 1932, Paul Caponigro is renowned as one of America’s most significant master photographers. When he was thirteen, he began to explore the world around him with his camera and subsequently sustained a career spanning nearly fifty years. He is currently regarded as one of America’s foremost landscape photographers.
To learn more about the artist visit www.paulcaponigro.com
This conversation was first seen in the May/June, 1995 issue of View Camera magazine. Find out more about View Camera magazine at www.viewcamera.com
John Paul Caponigro What effect has history had on you? That question is twofold. First, you have been influenced by those who have gone before you. How would you identify and describe that influence? Second, a photographer who has achieved your status has had a dialog with historians, critics and the media and they have had an influence on your career. In what ways?
Paul Caponigro I think the first thing that has to be done is to make a separation between the artist, the art historian and history. Ananda Coomaraswamy said, "What’s the use of art anyway?" Store it away in the museums, that’s one function of accumulating art. But Coomaraswamy went on to say the function of art is to enliven the spirit. So artists, art historians, museums, collectors, history – all are absolutely secondary to the internal process of making art. The first and foremost influence on any artist is the sperm and the egg. Suddenly one becomes a being and that is a mystery. The influence of mystery is the greatest influence. Later one is influenced by society, either in positive or negative ways. That’s a pretty mixed bag of stuff. If the individual somehow has access to the suggestion of a vision he or she can bypass the constant influx and overlay of the various structures that insist they are the keepers of that art process. No one is a keeper of anyone or any art process. The art process belongs to the realm of creativity. Keep alive the fact that a mystery has come into existence and that a physical being serves as a house for this mystery. If that can be kept in mind the artist can manage influence. Influence is incessant. And a great deal of it is unnecessary. A great deal of it does not serve the inner mysterious process of art. I would say it is the artist who stays awake to mystery and inspiration and who will seek them out that will be able to bypass society’s need to package it in one form or another.
So I don’t care who I’ve been influenced by. But I do think if the artist has a basic vision and pursues that he will acknowledge that he took the essentials, the basics, the best of technique from someone else who took their technique up to a certain level. Why not? Take that.
But I can’t buy into the notion that influence means that one personality has been infected by another. Under all of the factors that make up the art world, it’s up to the individual artist to discern which of those influences are present and at what time and what really serves the deeper process that is constantly running like a stream underground. Influence is incessant. Influence is a fact. But, carry a big shovel and dig constantly to clear away all the unessentials so that the origins of mystery and the poetic force of life can get into and inspire the work.
JPC I think we have to have a little sympathy for the plight of the art historian who has to try to describe, contextualize and categorize that inspiration. That’s a pretty tough job. When we come across a piece of art work we see it or feel it but we can’t always articulate why it is so alive. How does one recognize when a work of art is inspired?
PC You recognize it by constantly aiming at freedom. Constantly put yourself in the position of being free from even the concern to recognize. Castaneda and Don Juan have a perfectly wonderful dialog together on the business of ‘not doing’ as opposed to ‘doing.’ Don Juan tells Castaneda that he must learn to ‘not do.’ Castaneda says, how do I not do? Life is doing. Yes, that’s precisely the problem. Everything that you do is based on something you already know. It has already been handed to you. Everybody is doing according to a formula and that’s what keeps it all in place. This is all too obvious. Not doing means that you’re aware that that process exists and you step away from it in order to see clearly. The ability to be free, from that process, even though you are a part of it, enables you to ‘see.’ Then it’s not difficult at all. Then the essence becomes available.
Seek freedom within action. That’s Castaneda and Don Juan’s terminology. I am very sympathetic to the Don Juan method of telling the student to please be quiet and follow him as he is led into the very experience through the most uncommon or the most unexpected avenues. It can be said through esoteric Christian terminology, it can be said through Zen terminology. It’s a process of answering to the spiritualization of life or the creative act. First you do it with the materials presented to you as a medium through which to work. Then you have to do it internally with your own psyche in terms of its reactions to the whole world. Freedom is the answer to that problem. Argument will beget argument. History will beget history. Inspiration will beget inspiration.
Photography attracted me before I ever knew that it was a part of a structured world. I saw a camera which my grandmother wielded. I thought it was fascinating. I didn’t know about famous artists and museums and magazines. I innocently met that process. And I excitedly engaged it to the best of my ability. Later, because my excitement was so strong, I realized that this could be a medium through which I could work. Then I had to meet the whole world of photography; manufacturers, materials, hype, galleries, dealers, critics, etc. Somehow I did not lose sight of that initial innocence. I realized that unless I could stay free, unidentified, unless I could keep my personality from going crazy with the adulation or the lack of it I was not going to maintain that innocence. I realized that the innocence was the important state that called forth the inspiration into the process.
JPC O’Keefe once made the statement "You must learn to love the paint." I think this quote very much emphasizes the process of being alive to one’s materials. I think the same needs to be said for one’s subject and oneself. I feel a work of art is great to the degree that the artist is truly alive to all three of these things. We touched on how to identify a work that is truly alive. If it is, is it a great work of art? If so, why is this so often confused with technical mastery and historical or ideological relevance.
PC The only way a work of art can become great is for one to acknowledge that it doesn’t belong to anybody. The greatness is in constantly giving back, coming to an acknowledgment of the source. Look back to the source of any individual, any process, any set of materials. If the individual personality can relinquish its insistence on concepts like "this is mine", "I did it", "this is original", "nobody else has done it", it goes straight for greatness or the essential spirit. No matter how simple the idea might be, it is compelling. Because the source has been allowed topermeate or inspire it.
JPC How does one recognize this?
PC First and foremost you must make yourself available to it. Being available is very important. I’ve spent a lot of time working in the British Isles at so called pre-historic sacred sites. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to go there and force a composition or extract any kind of typicality to make pictures which were expected by the audience within the world of photography. I could have been quite clever and made very pleasing pictures. But I was affected by being available to those sites a few times. When I dropped all those concerns, mentally, emotionally, physically, I was available. I was free in those areas. I didn’t think, "I’ve got to get the ultimate in composition today." or "I’ve got to get the ultimate in light, I’ll stay here until it appears." I was not making any demands. I went purely to see what would come, what might be there. I didn’t have to be archaeologist or historian or tourist, I just needed to be available. At the point of being available, which is sometimes dependent on luck and sometimes on preparation, if you’ve learned about your own traps and predispositions and step over them, one can get to a point of knowing you are there, present; you are not frustrated, angry, happy, sentimental, you are so quiet and so available that your presence meets the presence of that which you are engaging. Then that becomes communion.
JPC Do you ever feel you need to be discriminating with what you are communing with?
PC If you are engaging rationality, you are already engaging a place that makes you unavailable. Only when I recognize that inspiration has announced itself to my availability will I then say I need to use my mind to calculate exposure, my emotions to position myself and arrange a configuration of shapes that need to come into being, my body to put it all in place because we have been given a message and it has come through inspiration through being available. I quietly wait until inspiration comes and then everything needed takes its position so that it can be made manifest. Availability to your own presence, which has been groomed towards freedom, within a very complex structure, that place has to be located and activated. It is at the point that inspiration actually makes the entrance that something asks how do we digest this? You’ve got to receive it first. For that you have to turn the mind off from expecting anything, tell the emotions to be quiet enough to receive those subtle vibrations that will inform you and tell the body to be still until it is time to act to put things in motion.
JPC I understand that you’re becoming a vessel for a certain kind of energy, but I’m asking do you discriminate with the kinds of energies you’re becoming a conduit for?
PC Oh you bet.
JPC You talk about the stones that bite you and the stones that heal you.
PC That will be apprehended as you are present to the total situation.
JPC And instinctively you’ll know the time to shut off or open yourself up?
PC I’ve been turned around before I even got near the object. I started towards a particular prehistoric site, I got within a certain distance of it and something turned my body around and simply said get away.
JPC What do you think turned you around? Higher visitation, your own nature?
PC The reception of the character of the vibration of the place. My particular receptive vibration picked up the quality of that vibration and said danger. As far as my experience goes one is automatically in touch with the higher spiritual, we want to call it a guardian angel, it is connected to a certain level that interpenetrates our total physical and psychic existence. We are always in touch with it. To make it understandable to ourselves we call it a guide or an angel. What is really happening is that that particular aspect is in tune, is more readily available to one’s total being. .
There’s a very nice image. Christ drove his ass into Jerusalem. There’s a total configuration. Jerusalem is the the spiritual realm to which we wish to get; it’s the Christian Promised Land, the Native American Happy Hunting Grounds, the Celtic Land to the West. Daily we tread the earth. Some of us are called to that spiritual realm more strongly than others; yet all of us are in touch with it. We are already in touch with it we are simply trying to clear a path for it to come through more fully. The Christ is a very high aspect of the consciousness, the real guide. The Christ consciousness is above rationality. It will inform various aspects of the beast of burden, which can be seen as our physical totality and can include mind and emotion, to head for the promised land.
All of those dimensions, forces, energies are in one package. To which are we oriented at a given time? How many of us have studied the total process of being a human being sufficiently to realize that they can be aware of one’s total state? How many can recognize that it is possible to balance the forces and faculties within us to aim at a common goal. Not many.
The one thing I truly appreciated about the Gurdjieff teachings is that he said, not to focus only on praying in the pews because you are also spending much of your life in the street. You are giving out and being subjected to energy and forces. Can you keep your balance? Can you see what and where you are at any given moment? Without isolating or denying yourself the variety of forces that are possible, not being exclusive about any one process? Putting yourself in real life. Somehow that made sense to me.
I did this on occasion with my camera and I began to realize that essentially that whole process of photographing could be seen as meditation in action. I try not to separate any part of the process. I need to be emotionally available when I am loading film. I try not to leave any part of myself out of any part of the process. I’m not going to compartmentalize the process, one time to think and another to feel. All of that must happen together in the right balance to serve the purpose. I have caught myself walking up a hill, being in a particular emotional state, recognizing that something is telling me that if I stay together and persist that inspiration will arrive. Of what nature I haven’t a clue, but I could sense it in my bones. Total functioning, keeping the various faculties in harmony allows one to recognize that a spiritual presence has been activated, it has been let in to the process of daily life.
JPC They don’t teach this in modern universities do they?
PC No. And one has to scrutinize all the different interpretations within the various religious teachings carefully. The real teaching is taking and activating the principles and the practices once you have understood them. You will reach little until you have activated them. (It’s the same with any technique. Unless you engage photographic technique in a lively fashion, no mater how sophisticated, you will not make images that are alive.)
JPC You redefine originality.
PC The root word is origin. You hearken back to the source of the process of the whole cosmology. Today we have personality cult. This is a fractured era of the ego where the focus is too self-centered and unfortunately very uninformed spiritually.
JPC Mark Helprin, a writer I feel is very much a painter with words, speaks of a certain quality of light, "If you were to go to every museum in the world to look at the paintings in which such a beam of light connects heaven and earth, do you know what you would find? You would find that in whatever time, in whatever country, painter to painter, the angle of light is more or less the same."
PC There are universals. Who can deny a universals? If everyone could clearly see enough of their own religion, country, and personality and they got to the point of being able to stand by the beam of light, they would see that it comes from the same place. God will be revealed whether Mohammed, Buddha, or Christ approaches. They will all arrive at the same plane. They’ll drop all their uniforms, all their specific cultural accouterments, and they’ll see the beam of light at the same angle.
JPC True also for people working in different mediums; painter, poets, dancers, musicians?
JPC Over the years even I would have a hard time telling which would be your first love music or photography. How do you feel activity in one has influenced activity in the other?
PC Within my own personal investigations I’ve found out that they will both get to the same place. They arrive through quite different avenues. It has been very interesting wrestling with problems of being a photographer versus a pianist. I was aware of music before photography. I was totally enamored, still am enamored of music and I will be for the rest of my days. But I made a discovery that I could not sit at a piano bench for eight hours a day, the nature of my physique insisted that I be out in nature. I realized that I could never be a professional pianist no matter how well I play, because something else in my make up must be outdoors more often. It made sense not to fight myself and to be a photographer, but I will never let go of the music. I will always sit and play and even aspire to doing a recital. But I will never be a concert pianist.
JPC Music serves as a marvelous analogy for you. Your "negative is a score", your "print is a performance", the "tones in the grayscale are analogous to tones in a musical key", you "orchestrate the tonalities within a given images", you speak of the photographic process very musically. Beyond all that I would think that inspiration in one medium would dovetail into another.
PC Absolutely. It’s the same as with the ray of light. In any medium, you must achieve a state of being – receptivity. Then you work within that discipline to maintain that state at which time it is possible to get the inspiration to make a work of art. What I discovered was that it is much harder to get there and maintain it in photography than it is in music. The difficulty is not in the manipulation of the medium in order to arrive at the place. The difficulty is that photography is too often intellectualized whereas the process of music has an easy time of slipping past the brain and going directly to an area that can more easily open, to the realm of inspiration. How does sound come in? Ears, which is the point at which it can get involved with the brain. But it also comes directly into the body as vibration and that can reach the total human being much more quickly. We are not aware that it affects us to the degree that it does. It almost immediately goes straight to the emotions. You don’t have that to such a degree in photography. To be the photographer that I am I’ve worked at the task of making myself more porous to keep myself and the work alive. Doesn’t a sound get your attention much more quickly than a picture?
JPC Yes. You have to apprehend it more rapidly because if you don’t it’s gone. You can sit and look at a painting for hours, days, months. A note lasts a second and is gone, you either appreciate it or you don’t.
PC For myself I’ve made the distinction that they seem to come into the psyche through different doorways. It’s less possible to get tripped up through music than through visual activity.
JPC We also layer lots of associations onto visual images; a cross represents Christianity, a cup refers to the grail, red signifies blood. Whereas we don’t attach a specific meaning to c minor.
PC Even better said. There is a threshold in either medium and it’s much easier to trip over the threshold of the visual. C minor remains in the mysterious realm.
JPC I was reading an article on the Holy Grail this morning which referred to Joseph Campbell speaking about man’s fixation on the decoding of particular symbols. He was saying the real power of myth lies in its mysteriousness and in it’s ability to provide a vessel through which we can contact that mystery. The experience, the essence of the activity, is far more important than the particulars that give it shape.
PC I could say that I use my music to tune myself. If I can maintain a certain open receptive state then I can proceed much faster to what’s essential in the realm of the visual. I’ve got the best of both worlds. Music is another form of meditation for me. Music will open me up, quiet me down and feed certain aspects of my being important to the process of making art.
JPC This concept of receptivity. It almost sounds like one becomes a live wire, a radio receiver for something out there, one opens oneself up to have something poured in and yet it seems that the individual has a vital function in this process. I wouldn’t want to take this as far as some modernists who say personal expression is everything, but we have often discussed the idea that one cannot leave the things one touches untouched, that we leave our fingerprints behind us. You and I photograph, side by side, a leaf or a dead calf and we make completely different photographs. On your groundglass are your proportions, mine are on mine; proportions we have seen time and time again. We leave something of ourselves behind and the experience leaves something behind in us. This romantic notion of muses that we’ve inherited if taken too far can run the risk of making us empty vessels when we have very definite characteristics, which can be unique and wonderful and can contribute to and enrich the process of making art.
PC Each individual or culture has a unique color, shape, identity unique to their total composition. Variety enriches life.
JPC And each one of those separate parts play a unique role in making up that larger whole that we were talking of getting in contact with. Not to recognize that and to celebrate it as well seems to be a mistake.
PC What you could say is the sun beats out white light and if you interfere with it it will refract. That is if you interject at the right point you will see that it is emitting rays of different color and that each one relates back to its source. They each have a unique quality and function, but no one is less important than another. And if you follow them back you will see that they have a common ground.
If any of those functions is in touch with it’s source then you really can’t argue. It is not separate. Our best scientists have proven that it isn’t separate. We could learn from ecology, each piece affects the whole. We have to consider that if we want to keep balance on a larger scale. We can announce ourselves as specialists but the best of us will have to admit that we are working from an energy source that is common. We can’t stay separate.
JPC What effect do you think your work produces?
PC In New York it will have one effect, in Los Angeles another. If the receiver is actually available, it will have the same effect on them that it has on me. Which is to say that mystery unfolds.
Discovery is the most important part of the activity and the one I enjoy the most. If someone wants to disagree with a particular action or a result isn’t that part of the process of discovery. Aren’t things still unfolding? Isn’t that a part of discovery? If I come from the old tradition and there’s a whole new tradition that is now in force the process of discovery is yet to unfold. I am much more interested in watching the unfolding than arguing that this is better than that or this is good and this is bad. It really comes down to, this is. Rather than arguing I would rather be in the way of that process so that I can be discovering as it unfolds.
We could go on and on and argue in artspeak. I will continue to discover that I can be just as full of it as anyone else if I fall asleep like most people do. I will then try to get back into the flow to enliven that life force in creativity which is, always. We stop along the way, we call them eras. They can be pushed on. I think maybe in my later years, down the line, I might have cleared enough in my life, and created a pair of legs that would not stumble so often within the stumbling blocks of life to climb to some rather clear sights. I feel that in me. I feel that the human psyche can and has already recognized that there is a special truth of being. There’s not merely a truth of truth. There’s not only a source of truth. There’s also a truth of individual being. That is if you are awake to an ever changing truth. Sensitivity, awareness, the willingness to participate in that flow. Function within it.
I don’t know what’s going to change me. I may have to pick up the computer. (We laugh.) That’s not funny. I accept that as a possibility, I can’t deny it. Just so long as the change has the right kind of impetus behind it.
JPC Would you ever see a need to go digital? I’m looking at you, a technophobe who has steadfastly refused to learn to turn a computer on, saying "I might go digital." You wince and squint whenever I work on my computer.
PC That simply says not now. But, what has Kodak been doing? One at a time they take away certain papers that are irreplaceable and beautiful. They no longer even manufacture a simple developer like Selectol. In other words a lot of the manufacturers are gradually phasing out the materials important to my work. Can I deny that twenty years from now I may not have the materials to stay within my traditional silverprinting?
JPC That wouldn’t stop you. You’re stubborn enough to mix up your own formulas and coat your own papers.
PC What if the technology actually gave those possibilities, characteristics and qualities? What if the technology comes up with the ability to produce just as effective and beautiful images through new materials?
JPC It has and it will continue to do so. In fact you’ll find, and I’ve shown you before, that on the computer you have more control. It’s just a matter of time before direct output materials rival traditional ones.
PC So there you are. The cosmos is changing. I told you a few years back I was going to have to develop a new nervous system to keep up with what is being put into our environments.
JPC This is the first time I’ve seen you say it and not wince. You’d actually entertain the idea of putting a digital back on your camera and coming home and viewing your images on a TV monitor instead of going into the darkroom?
PC Give me materials that have force and beauty and I will use them.