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PC Photo

by Graeme Fordyce

This article first appeared in the July/August, 1999 issue of PC Photo.

Graeme Fordyce Seeking new tools is one the fundamental artistic impulses. What events marked and inspired your emphasis to shift from painting to computer processed photography? What possibilities does the computer offer that land more adept modes of expression?

John Paul Caponigro I’d say seeking is one of the fundamental artistic impulses. Art is about discovery. The tools usually follow. The medium is not the message. Yet each tool encourages certain kinds of perception which influences the content of work dramatically.

I wanted to work digitally from the moment I saw the technology decades ago but did not have access to it economically until digital imaging was brought to the desktop computer. I knew long ago it that suited my vision. My original intentions in painting were to bring visions in my mind’s eye into clear focus, photographic representation definitely influenced me, often I would use photographs as reference. Photography could hold the world still and allow me to bring it into my studio for prolonged study. In some of the imagery I was dependent on the camera eye, without it I would not have seen certain images – the earth from outer space, a x-ray, a telescopic or a microscopic image. The content of my imagery was more narrative; I looked to Blake and Bosch, to Persian miniatures and Japanese prints, then. When I encountered the computer I created a narrative body of work (Rites of Passage) a series I had been planning to resolve as ink and wash. As my work developed digitally I began to work more abstractly, working with such literal surfaces actually encouraged me to do less narrative work. The literal photographic surfaces can be too descriptive, or not suggestive enough, for my taste. I wanted it to be clear that the constructed images I was creating were descriptions of internal states, not fantastical external realities. Then came symmetry. I would not be doing the work I am doing with symmetry without the computer. Mechanically it is very hard to do with paint, without the photograph it is hard to conceive of such complexity, but with traditional photography there are the problems of seems and edges, and of unnecessary elements that must be included simply because there is no way to get the image on film and paper without their inclusion. This new art form offers me the opportunity of creating a hybrid of the sensibilities of both traditional painting and photography. I could have used it to create a "straight" image that was even more faithful to human perception than film. Simply because of my nature, not the nature of the tool, I chose another path.

GF How do you go about creating these images?

JPC I’ve had a varied enough experience in many artistic disciplines to know that there are many ways of approaching image making. I don’t put limits on the way that I work. I recognize that there are many possibilities. I look for inspiration and try to match the working method that best supports that.

I usually start making images by sketching ideas, with pencil or ink and paper. Where that sketch comes from is what varies. There are times when an image will arrive fully conceived, it may come in a dream. I’ll sketch it and find the materials necessary to bring it to full realization. Then there are times when in the process of sketching new ideas emerge. I’ll sketch them and continue in a new direction. Other times ideas emerge as I view transparencies and prints. I make more sketches. On occasion an image will take a new course as it develops on the computer. Once I’ve grasped where it is going I sketch it and continue. But of course there is always the possibility of going out into the field without preconceptions and discovering a fully realized image. Even though the image is then wholly captured in silver and a single instant (I still shoot film but look forward to easy to use, economical, high end digital capture), I still like to sketch the image; I find it helps me understand it better. There is no formula for inspiration, there are ways to stimulate it and there are ways to stay with it, all are supported by a state of receptivity and attentiveness.

There is no formula for how long a given image takes. In my work, the longest was six months, the quickest was a few hours. This excludes making exposures in the field, sketching, and editing sketches; it includes finding transparencies, scanning, correcting, and compositing. On a good week, when all my materials are assembled and sketches are completed and edited, I’ll be able to make a new image each day.

One of the most important aspects of working is editing. Years ago I found I had more sketches than I could possibly use in a lifetime. And new sketches keep arriving on a regular basis. Initially this was frustrating. Now I see the value in it. It became clear to me that I had to make choices. And it became clear to me that they were important choices for they were the blueprints for how I would live my life and who I would become.

GF What are your favorite tools, from the art, photography and computer worlds?

JPC I use all sorts of tools. It’s the process they allow that I love more than the tools themselves. I still love pencil … and ink or watercolor. Recently I’ve been using pastel for preliminary studies of the sonatas, nocturnes, and mandalas. I favor hand held cameras; I like to fill my pockets with film and wrap my camera around my wrist and explore. I love my Canon lenses, I might not ever use another camera if I could get a bigger piece of film to go through the camera (digital capture might change that one day). For bigger pieces of film I like my Mimiya 645. On rare occasions, in the studio or for architecture, I use a Sinar. I have a love/hate relationship with my Howtek drum scanner. I love my Mac G3, most days. I love Photoshop, almost always.

GF Symmetry is something lots of photographers look for in nature – you create it. Is there a statement there? Perfection beyond nature’s capacity? A commentary, an improvement on science?

JPC When I hear the phrase improve upon nature I instantly think of Teddy Roosevelt’s statement, "Leave it alone, it cannot be improved upon." And there is a part of me shares this sentiment. When one approaches nature as a temple, a vessel for the sacred, one usually doesn’t think of changing it. Yet I do alter nature in my images. The idea of the garden, a cultivated land where man works in tandem with nature, is compelling. I have difficulty calling this ‘improvement’ but I do value it. There is also the difficulty of creating graven images, dangerous only because it is tempting to locate the sacred in the newly created object or to draw the conclusion that it contains all that is truly important of that which it represents. I don’t feel I can eliminate myself from the process. Heisenberg would certainly agree. One could say that I am being more honest by making my influence clearer than the practitioner of the traditional document who often claims to have objectively stepped aside. I don’t wish to make that statement for I respect the effort and the conscientiousness of that mode’s many practitioners both past and present. I see the internal world (the aborigine’s dreamtime) and the external world (Newton’s divine clock) as two poles of existence and I seek to create images that offer the possibility of their synthesis.

Symmetry is something that came to me. I had no idea what fascinated me about it but I found the results thrilling. At first I was fascinated by the tension between Euclidean geometry and fractal geometry, both being different levels of order. Once symmetry was introduced another level of order appeared. Initially I was interested in creating fields of pattern to define space (in the series Elemental). As things progressed I also became interested in a symmetry that created discrete objects within space (in the 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). To make vessels for its description drawn from the surroundings it was sensed in seemed appropriate. I struggled to describe the results; the phrase fictive evocations of the spirit of the land arose.

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 referred to the patterns I had found/created (it is both) as elemental Rorschachs. I intend for them not only to reveal but to be interpreted as well, every viewer brings their own unique experience with them 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 have heard psychologists are often more interested in the strategies patients use to solve the problem of interpretation than they are in the products that arise during the course of that interpretation. I’m interested in both. I enjoy discussing what people see in the images.

GF Your mandalas are very beautiful expressions of that symmetry. Is there Jungian reference in them beyond the clear appeal to the sacred Eastern practice?

JPC Jung said, "In considering the mandala we are considering the self." Mandala forms seem to arise in every major culture throughout the world and throughout history. They have varied uses but as a general rule they are used primarily for reflection and the pursuit of wholeness through integration or synthesis, often they foster stepping beyond dualistic patterns of thought. These forms arose spontaneously in my work. I had of course seen many mandalas, particularly in sacred art. Growing up in an artistic family I can’t remember not looking at art. I had even drawn mandalas as a child without knowing that there was a sophisticated vocabulary for describing them and many rich and varied traditions for constructing them.

The mandala is one form of sacred geometry. Often the mandala is seen as an abstract representation of the structure of the universe. It used as the foundation for the construction of many temples. Nature is my temple. Of course this is not a new idea and I am certainly not alone in this belief. The Orthodox Christians feel God gave man two books, the good book and the book of nature. Even Newton shared similar concerns. Many primal cultures consider nature sacred.

The mandala forms I am currently creating are meant to foster reflection. While it was not consciously planned it seems that it is no coincidence that they are constructed of the reflective surfaces of water. They are meant to be non-denominational, that is not dependent on the iconography of a specific tradition. Rothko was able to communicate a psychic state and foster reflection, possibly even transformation, with pure fields of color. This shares a similar impulse. Yet these surfaces are photographic. And manipulated (worked by the hand). They are at once abstract and representational. You may see mandala like structures in my other series, particularly the earth works, as in Marking Time.

It may sound like I am trying to create religious images. This is not so. Spiritual images perhaps, religious images no. I am not preaching, nor do I pretend to have a specific message – beyond this is worthy of respect – I am simply sharing experience with the viewer. I stand before nature with reverence and respect. I treat it as sacred. I make images from nature and about nature. I am a spiritual being. It is a spiritual experience for me. Spirituality is inevitable but it is not the only dimension at work here.

GF Water, sky, clouds. Your subject matter tends to be grand, elemental. Your use of colors and textures appears deliberate, to the point of feeling meted out sparingly. What attracts you to the vastness, the space, the simplicity of shapes and colors?

JPC I am interested in spare compositions. I like haiku. I find it’s a pleasure to see things stripped down to their essentials. There is a strong tension between abstraction and description in most of my work. I’ve always been fascinated by how "straight" photographs, the most representational medium, can become so abstract, sometimes becoming unrecognizable. The basic element of many of my images is the horizon line. Many images are simply composed of it. It took me a long time to understand why I was so drawn to it. Picasso says, "An artist knows more than he thinks he knows." It took time for my rational mind to catch up to what I knew by intuition. Several notions live here. First the horizon is a limit of perception (like a rainbow it is a virtual image that has no fixed point in space, you move, it moves). Photographing it, fixing its description, is an interesting problem. Second I’m interested in ways of seeing. There is the notion of ‘hard eyes’ an analytical, detail oriented way of looking and there is the notion of ‘soft eyes’ a more holistic, less specific way of looking that sees relationships before details. One puts the pieces together mentally, the other sees them with less specificity as whole already. I ran into a passage in one of Casteneda’s books that suggested looking at the horizon as a meditative act that I find can combine aspects of both hard and soft eyes. Each way of seeing brings about a shift in consciousness. This might sound as if it’s entirely about the subjective world but in the world of modern physics it is not unimportant, we find we ask a question and frame an answer. Ask is light a particle and we find it is. Ask is light a wave and we find it is. It’s difficult to reconcile this paradox but we realize that observation changes the phenomenal world. The process of asking questions is a very important aspect of my work.

GF How would you respond to a digital-critic who might argue that by virtue of manipulating nature’s forms, proportions and colors, you’re creating artistic misdirection and falsehoods?

JPC Platonic thought considers the realm of ideas to be more pure and eternal that their counterparts we find in nature. The Romantics considered an art that did not transform reality, mere representation, an inferior art, a sentiment frequently echoed within other cultures and other periods of time. This question comes from a specifically photographic perspective, particularly informed by its last seventy-five years, and it contains many assumptions about what photography is and can and cannot do. The history of representation is long and complex and it would be healthy for us to be aware of the assumptions we make and the cultural biases we bring with us. Now as photography evolves as a result of changing technologies it is particularly important, both as individuals and as a culture, that we consider our positions carefully. I am aware of the assumptions that people make about photography and photographs but I do not feel that I must make the same assumptions, though I do feel I should be mindful of them, as should we all.

I deliberately leave the traces of my working process within the work. It is quite obvious that these images are not meant to be documentary records of an historical or scientific truth and I do not claim that they are. That would be misdirection. But I purposefully do not tell my audience what has been manipulated. And I usually incorporate at least one "straight" (a term that is loaded and has a history of its own) image in every show. This sets up a dialog with the viewer asking the questions, "What has been manipulated?" and "How can I tell?" Other questions I find valuable, I ask myself these questions constantly, "What is natural and what is constructed, either culturally or individually?" or, "What is objective and what is subjective?" I feel the questions are much more valuable than the answers. I don’t pretend to have the answers, and I’d look askance at anyone who claimed they did, though we do all have truth of our own experience.

I don’t feel that a photograph, or any representation for that matter, could represent the full truth of an experience drawn from life, bound in time and three-dimensional space. Pictures are statements. Pictures are made – in many ways, not just one. There are times when fiction or poetry, informed by our subjectivity, re-presents the truth of an experience better than a mere document which claims to be objective. And it can also work the other way. Just because I choose to work a certain way doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate other ways of working. I may be working outside of tradition, even non-traditionally, but I respect tradition and traditional work. It’s not a matter of one way being better or right or superior; it’s simply a matter of being different.

GF What would you like your viewer to come away with after looking at your images? Is it an intellectual, spiritual, emotional reaction, or a cleverly wrought melding of the three? Do you consider your images nearer the world of ideas or application?

JPC I hope that viewers come away from my images feeling inspired, perhaps challenged in a healthy way, holistically. The work operates on many levels at once; physically (looking can be a sensual act), intellectually (it is mindful of an evolving visual tradition), and emotionally (this would confirm a moving reaction beyond mere stimulation). I hope the images serve as a catalyst for insight, into both external and internal worlds. I hope the viewer comes away with more questions than answers, perhaps a new way of looking that fosters a lively dialog with the world. I find the work, others’ and my own, that inspires me most does this for me.

GF Where do you see your own art and technology heading in the coming years?

JPC I think technology will continue to evolve as or more rapidly in the future than it is today. Change is here to stay. It seems a necessary survival skill today is the ability to adapt. This process may include our tools, our working methods, and our ideas. But one has to ask the question to what end. Man makes decisions and meaningful statements, not the machine. The new tools could become nothing more than toys for endless distraction if they are not placed in the service of human vision. I feel I was lucky not to have access to this technology early on as I value the disciplines I learned, and the perceptual processes and the experiences they fostered. It would be very tempting to avoid that hard work and not lay a solid foundation, as the freedoms afforded by working digitally are truly wonderful and very enticing. Since the digital tools erase so many boundaries between existing traditions, since they do so much, the greatest temptation one faces when using them is to do too much. One can lose sight of one’s vision, or never find it faced with endless distraction, under the enchanting call of the digital. Your comment about the shift in sensibilities in literature pre and post television is an excellent analogy. It is probable that a new sensibility will arise, not better or worse, but different. What would be a shame is rich traditions and valuable sensibilities might be overlooked or undervalued when faced with the seductive influences of the new. But this need not be so. We have freewill. We make choices. We can choose to forget. Or we can choose to remember. We have all heard the saying that with freedom comes responsibility; we generally think of it as responsibility to something or someone else and run the risk of overlooking our responsibilities to ourselves. Nevertheless, freedom is a wonderful thing