by Inas Fayed
This article first appeared in the July 2000 issue of Computer Foto.
Inas Fayed In which way do you think that your knowledge of painting, drawing, calligraphy and literature influenced your way of photographing respectively digital imaging?
John Paul Caponigro The other disciplines I have facility in serve as useful foundations for my explorations, both technically and conceptually. The working methods of one can be repurposed for another. They are all ways of doing things but they are also ways of seeing things. The addition of each one broadens the scope of my inquiry. Each lends a different perspective, as each activates a different perceptual mode. Consider the modern physicist Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. If we ask if light is a particle, we find it is. If we ask if light is a wave, we find it is. But it can't be both. It's a paradox. When we ask a question we frame an answer. If you ask many kinds of questions you get many kinds of answers. Even if you ask the same question in many kinds of ways you get many different answers. Finding the correspondences between the different modes of inquiry is fascinating.
IF Although your "manipulation" of reality is very strong the images appear "natural". One feels a kind of strangeness in the landscapes, yes, but only the deeper look unveils the manipulation. And still it doesn't look unnatural. Could you please comment on this observation?
JPC The aesthetic of seamless image combination or photomontage has been the primary focus of my efforts. It's the focus of my first book which discusses technique — Adobe Photoshop Master Class. It was the focus of my painting before I began working digitally. Most call this kind of work "surreal", but I think this visionary sensibility, rather than being attributable to a relatively recent movement in art history, has been a current of thought that has resurfaced in culture at various times, sometimes more strongly than others.
I am interested in how the external or "objective" world shapes our internal or "subjective" world and vice versa. In the final analysis we can't separate the two. Piaget said, "What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see." In western culture it is easy to pass off this internal dimension as irrelevant. Other cultures, aboriginal cultures for instance, make it a particular focus of attention. For them the "dreamtime" is as real or more real than the waking world. If we spend a third of our lives sleeping and at least half of that dreaming and we don't remember it, we are probably missing a great deal that life has to offer. And we cannot remove ourselves from the process of observing, interpreting, and making statements about the world as we experience it.
I try to preserve the viewer's suspension of disbelief. I want these visions to seem real. And yet I'm not interested in convincing the viewer that this is an objective representation of the world. Consequently I leave subtle clues, traces of the working process. I set up a guessing game with the viewer as to what has been altered and what has not in order to ask a very important question, "How do we know what we know?" I ask the question myself. It's part of not taking things for granted. So there is a delicate balance between found and created elements within my work. Some of my images are very "straight", I show them when they fit into the larger context of my existing body of work. Images themselves can be deceptive or perhaps I should say we agree to be deceived by them. We know they are flat (often small) still representations of things and yet we choose to involve ourselves in the game of pretending that they accurately represent spacious realities. It's relative. Seen in one way, from one perspective, to one degree or another, they do. My images hover around the balancing point of spacious and flat, representational and abstract, real and fantastic. They do so in the hopes that the viewer (myself included) will become more aware of the process of looking, which is not passive, it is active. In my work you cannot remove any one participant from its process — me, the world, the viewer.
IF Another important element seems to be color. The colors, too, are manipulated (is that right?) and they still appear natural - though dramatic - too. Could you please comment that?
JPC Color is very important. In fact my next book, that discusses technique, is on color. To my mind the extraordinary control digital technology offers for color has been overshadowed by it's more fanciful aspects, compositing and filtration. Oddly, in the world of painting color is the dominant mode, while in photography black and white has been the dominant mode. In part, but only in part, this has been due to the limited technical control that traditional color photography afforded. Color photography has been criticized by some as being "merely representational" and inferior to black and white photography because one could exert more control over the medium and it involved a substantial transformation. Now, working digitally, the photographer can exert the control over color that the painter has had all along, chiefly because it offers control of color's three components (hue, saturation, and brightness) and it enables non-linear color correction (the ability to control single ranges of colors without affecting the others).
My work oscillates between the two poles of color accuracy (objective or representational color or the color of things and atmospheres) and color expression (subjective or arbitrary color where color is used to evoke an emotional response first and describe second). On the one hand I am interested in the palette of nature; it is full of marvelous subtleties and unusual combinations that are often overlooked and strike complex emotional chords. And on the other hand I am interested in using color in a psychological way; color alone can carry or become content.
To my mind blacks and whites are colors, so in one sense even black and white images have color. This later developed into an interest in alternative processes such as platinum and cyanotype and complex selective "toning" (or tinting). Half of my work is in color and half is in black and white. (I often use the term monochromatic instead of black and white.) I find working with one sharpens my skills in working with the other. It's rewarding to explore the question of when color serves an image and when it distracts from the main message of an image.
The champions of the American West Coast school of photography drew many parallels between the visual tonal scale and the musical tonal scale. Kandinsky drew an analogy between color and music. It's no mistake that my series of images titled after musical forms (sonatas, nocturnes, etudes, etc) is preoccupied with color. In preparation for that work, I do studies in color and proportion — minimalist pastels. Like sound, color can have an abstract life, one independent or in addition to the objective content of an image. We can be moved by it alone. When both aspects of color, description and expression, occur simultaneously in an image it's quite extraordinary.
IF One of your important elements of style seems to be symmetry. What idea stands behind this stylistic element?
JPC Symmetry is something that came to me. (Most of the important aspects of my work are not premeditated. They arise in the process of working. They surprise me. Whether this is a process of coming in direct contact with a deeper level of reality outside myself - something photography has a tendency towards - or a confrontation with the upwelling of my subconscious a deeper level of reality inside myself - something painting has a tendency towards - is unclear. I suspect it is a combination of both.) I had no idea what fascinated me about symmetry, but I found the results thrilling. I was interested in the tension between Euclidean geometry and fractal geometry, both being different levels of order abstracted from nature by man. Once symmetry was introduced, another level of order appeared. Initially I was interested in creating fields of pattern to define space (in my series Elemental). As my work continued to develop, I also became interested in a symmetry that created discrete objects within space (in my series Allies). Throughout, I was enchanted by the notion of making visible the spirit of nature. (The challenge of making the invisible visible fascinates me — inevitably, with this question, one runs into the limits of our perception and we are confronted with our subjectivity.) To make vessels for its description drawn from the surroundings in which it was sensed seemed appropriate. When this new impulse arose, I struggled to describe the results; the phrase "fictive evocations of the spirit of the land" came to mind. Later, I learned that in 1857, a man named Justinius Kerner published a series of inkblot drawings. He felt that the process brought him in closer contact with the spirit world. Since 1921, Kerner's invention has been applied in psychotherapy in a slightly altered form commonly known as the Rorschach test. I refer to the patterns I had found/created (It's both.) as elemental rorschachs. I intend for them not only to reveal but also to be interpreted; every viewer brings his or her own unique experience and perspective, and I hope to leave room for and encourage that dimension. I feel a work of art takes on a life of its own and what it generates continues on in the viewer in a very personal way. I enjoy discussing what people see in the images. In the course of sharing impressions the work continues to evolve. I am able to see my work differently, through another's eyes, in conversations. Making and looking at images is a visual dialog. Visual art is about looking. You can look before, during, and after the creation of a work. Symmetry, particularly bilateral symmetry, is also a clue to an order we call life. The organisms we give the greatest attention to are all bilaterally symmetrical. There is a very definite sense of animism, vitality, and life in this work.
IF In most of the images I saw there is no human track visible (except in the way you made the images of course). Water, sky, earth are the protagonists of your imagery. Why?
JPC This is true. There are few people or traces of human activity in much of my work. There are rarely plants and animals. I focus largely on sky, water, and earth. In the presence of what we consider to be living, the living quality of nature itself is more easily overlooked. We are habituated to see life in a specific way but there is a spirit, an animate essence, that transcends those descriptions. This is what my work addresses. This is a way of thinking that primal cultures have an easier time understanding and it is reflected in their arts and cultures. Often these cultures don't see nature as inanimate or dead but rather animate and living. They also don't see themselves as separate from nature, but rather part of nature. There is an ongoing body of work of mine, The Sensual Land, where the figure is featured prominently. In this work the boundaries between "it" and "us" dissolve. The model is my wife. She has an especially deep connection to the natural world and we share a great deal of our time together being in nature. While all of my work shares a theme of communion with nature, it is particularly apparent in this body of work.
There is a dual impulse at work here. While on the one hand the lack of "animate" objects and their traces allows one to focus on the animate aspects of nature, on the other hand there is also a sublimated sense of ecological uncertainty. We face monumental ecological challenges. Our generation will be the generation that finds hope for reversing the tide of destruction that swept through the last century or condemns the future to certain doom. I agree with the biologist Lovelock who says it is foolish to think of the earth as perishing, what we are really talking about is our own survival, and the future quality of our lives. That quality will be greatly degraded without a sound natural environment. With world populations expected to reach 15 - 40 billion in this current century (two to six times current populations), with global warming, desertification, species extinction, loss of habitat, toxic waste management, and a host of other existing issues, to say nothing of the issues that will arise as a result of genetic engineering — we face pressing and unprecedented issues. I marvel at John Muir's description of the Central Valley in California, it is nothing like what I experience. My child will marvel at my descriptions of the Florida Everglades. Must every generation suffer greater and ever increasing losses of the possibility of these kinds of experiences? There is an ecological spirit to all of my work. I'm not trying to make statements with a political agenda, I am simply making statements about things I care about. That might later extend into many forms of action, including political ones. First I hope the images inspire one to care and consider. Real change comes about when people care enough to take action themselves. Often the action they take is very creative and inspiring. I don't wish to prescribe actions for others, I only wish to prompt others to take action conscientiously.
IF Do you have a philosophy or a "motto" that accompanies you in your art, life, work?
JPC I'm not sure I've been asked a bigger question in a single line. It would take a lifetime and a life's work to really answer this question. I couldn't possibly distill it all into a paragraph. It would be like giving a one line synopsis of Moby Dick; A man obsessively chases a great white whale throughout the oceans and leads all those who follow him to doom, save one. Having identified the destination, it's easy to overlook the journey, which is so important. I haven't consulted an ad agency and so I haven't got an easily recognizable slogan or sound bit like Nike's "Just do it." that tries to say it all to everyone. It is a pretty good slogan when you consider it. It has a zen-like simplicity I appreciate. But I'll try and toss out a few lines, if you bear in mind they're only pieces of the puzzle. You might be able to triangulate a central theme from the many pieces, something I find I constantly do when considering my work, or another artist's body of work. That said, let me start with two of my favorites. Keep it simple. Less is more. And follow with a few others. Work comes out of a life lived. (The art, work, and life are all one, extensions of one another.) Watch for the point at which an image comes to life and while working watch for the point at which that freshness begins to diminish, stopping before it does. Control the medium, don't let it control you. Pursue excellence. Challenge preconceptions. "Think different." (That's Apple's line.) "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." (That's Robert Frost) Speak from the truth of your experience, that is the source of your true and unique voice which no one can duplicate. You can learn from anyone and anything. Approach your subject with respect and compassion. Do what you love. Care. None of these are very technical, which you might think strange coming from someone who works with cameras, computers and software, but I think we have to put the soul back into the machine in order to do truly good work