Photographers Forum

Painting with Photographs
by Ken Lassiter

This article first appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Photographer's Forum.

The next time you are on line, just for fun go to www.johnpaulcaponigro.com. You’ll find a selection of images, a long list of exhibitions around the country, conversations with other artists and even a recorded conversation between John Paul and his famous dad, Paul Caponigro.

Can there be any surprise that John Paul Caponigro became an artist? His dad is one of the most renowned photographers ever and his mom is a talented painter and designer. His high school sweetheart, also a designer, became his wife. It was written in the stars.

Seeing his art is a visual treat. His images have an emotional impact that catches the eye and stops the viewer in his or her tracks. So compelling you cannot turn away. Your eyes delight in the first impressions, admiring the simple yet elegant composition. You continue to absorb the image realizing that you are seeing more and feeling more as each moment passes. Your first impression begins to change. You realize something else is going on and you begin to form your second impression. Finally, it dawns on you: could this image have been created at least partly in a computer? John Paul would say you two just had a conversation.

Still a young man, John Paul Caponigro has already acquired considerable renown all around the USA. His work is a favorite at galleries across the nation and he has been featured in many magazines. Readers may be familiar with his name as author of his “Dialogs; Conversations with Artists” series of interviews.

His new book, Adobe PhotoShop Master Class is out and it too breaks new ground as both an inspirational and thought-provoking reference for artists. Caponigro has become very busy teaching workshops and on the lecture circuit.

John Paul and I had our conversation in my living room, surrounded by my print collection while my wife finished preparing dinner.

KL: Where were you born?

JPC: In the Boston area. I was an only child. Mostly we lived in rural places but during my first year we lived in Winthrop outside Boston. My second year, 1966, we lived in Ireland. That was the year my dad got a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph the megalithic monuments.

KL: Do you remember any of this?

JPC: Oh, yes. My earliest memories are from the boat trip over. I remember being concerned about our little blue VW bug as dad drove it into the hold of the ship to take over with us. My mom was holding me. I was fascinated by the water. Mom put a dog leash on me so I could be by the rail safely. I saw a huge sea turtle. I also remember losing my favorite book over the side. I can see it now, clear as day, sinking into the water.

KL: What was the book?

JPC: I don’t know. I was only a year old.

KL: What do you remember about Ireland?

JPC: I remember driving all over Ireland. We lived in Dublin and after a year came back to the States. But every year we went back to Ireland to visit friends. I have a lot of memories of Ireland.

When we moved back to the States we lived in Connecticut in a house in the woods. When I was seven, we moved out to New Mexico, where there were no trees to climb. The West was a real culture shock for me. At first the desert seemed lifeless, then I learned to look with a different set of eyes, and gradually it got into my blood. Now I adore it. Being an only child, I had to keep myself busy. I enjoyed drawing and painting.

KL: When did you start drawing?

JPC: We were still in Dublin. I drew all over the walls with crayons and we almost got kicked out of our rented house. After that, mom put blocks of paper on the wall and said, “Hey, kid, on the paper—not the wall!”

KL: So you have been making pictures since you were between one and two years old?

JPC: Yes.

KL: When did you start making photographs?

JPC: Not until I was in college studying painting. My dad never pushed me towards photography. He simply encouraged me to express myself creatively. I realized that a lot of the drawings and paintings I was doing were photo-realistic. I started making photographs as reference for paintings.

I was curious about certain issues that pertain to making photographs. I was fascinated that two people could stand side-by-side using the same equipment and make very different pictures. Then there were certain pictures, by Aaron Siskind and my dad among others, where the literal world seemed abstract, even strange. My dad’s photograph of the apple is one that impressed me very deeply. At one time I went along with the assumption that photography simply represented reality. As I learned more about photography that changed.

I thought photography would be a great way to spend time with dad. But I graduated from college and moved away. What I did not know was that he would later move almost into my backyard in Maine. Now we spend plenty of time together.

I had no real plan to become a visual artist who used photographic material to such a degree. I concentrated on drawing and painting so I could focus on images in my mind. Then serendipity happened.

The Kodak Center for Creative Imaging was opened in Camden, Maine. It was like a dream come true. I had seen digital technology once before—back in the early 70s—when mom was overseeing the production of Eliot Porter’s “Intimate Landscapes” book at the Acme printing plant in Boston. Twelve hours a day I drew and read under the table. Because I was a good kid, they gave me a tour of the Scitex lab where they made computer color corrections. They showed me how to change colors and distort shapes. Instantly I imagined what you could do in fine art with that technology.

So when I saw what the Macintosh computers at CCI could do, I knew this was a dream come true. I realized that I could take my drawings from photographs and turn them back into photographs. The Scitex machines costs millions of dollars but I could afford to put a Macintosh computer right in my studio! It was a dream come true!

KL: What was your moment of revelation about the computer? What were you working on then?

JPC: I was working on a narrative series, mostly ink and wash drawings. I had made photographs for reference. I tried bringing some of the photographs and comparable drawings into the computer. Suddenly, I realized I could take an element from the photograph and, instead of rendering it by hand, I could unite it with other photographic elements in the computer and keep the photographic quality. I could use what I wanted from the photograph and build what I wanted in the computer to create the image as I saw it in my mind.

Soon I realized I could use the computer to produce digital equivalents of most alternative processes. I had seen the way photographers toned images. I watched mom make duotones for printing presses and watched dad try many different papers and developers looking for the right color for his black and white images. I had an unlimited range of colors I could use on the computer. That was very exciting!

“I don’t paint on photographs and I don’t paint from photographs. I paint with photographs.”

KL: Your mother was a painter?

JPC: Yes, but she’s known primarily as a fine art book designer. She worked on the Stieglitz’ – O’Keefe book among many others. Her professional name is Eleanor Morris Caponigro. Often this work involved her in the production as well as the design.

KL: What did she teach you?

JPC: Wow! Everything. She taught me to eat my spinach. She encouraged me to draw. I remember when I was little, we would do drawings together. I would make a mark and then she would make one. We kept at it until the image evolved. The frog would get a top hat and then suddenly it would be on the moon. It was fun! She taught me a great deal about design, composition, proportion and offset printing.

KL: What did you do right after college?

JPC: I spent some time doing illustration work. One project was a children’s book.

KL: How did you get started at CCI?

JPC: I had some friends working there. I applied for an artist in residence, which gave me free run of the place, and I could sit in on courses. I loved it.

KL: What was the first money you made using photography and the computer working together?

JPC: There was an exhibition at the end of the artist in residence at CCI. I sold several prints and my career as a digital fine artist was born.

KL: A lot of your work strikes me as landscapes that upon study cannot be real. Are these places you have been or places you want to go—at least in your mind?

JPC: Actually a combination of both. When I travel I see things and I make a photograph. I also feel, think, and imagine things in response to what I see. I make images as a result of many responses. There are places where an particular kind of awareness is fostered. Some of my images have a single source and represent the way the image looked before the camera eye but many are drawn from several sources and represent the images within my mind’s eye as well.

KL: I recall one image that looks like it was made from space. You’ve never been in space have you?

JPC: No, not yet, but that is what my mind sees.

KL: The image I have in mind looks very much like a straight photograph but it is impossible. The stars are bright and the sea and land below are sharp and in plain view with muted night colors.

JPC: Yes, if it was a conventional photograph made at night, the waves would be blurry but I saw them sharp and clear so that is how I rendered them. Also I believe we see color at night, not just black and white. I’m interested in night’s palette.

KL: So many of your images have a horizon line often across the middle. A rule of composition says one is never supposed to put the horizon line in the middle of the image. You seem to break the rules of composition all the time. Right?

JPC: I do break the rules deliberately, especially in the seascapes you are referring to. If you break a rule, you should do it in order to make a statement. Placing the horizon line centrally calls attention to it, and it gives equally weight to what’s above and below it. In my work I place the horizon line at many different levels. Proportion is extremely important to me. This body of work has a minimalist impulse. The painter Mark Rothko influenced me. He was my introduction to modernist art. I found his work to be very powerful. I was mystified at how he could do so much with so little.

His canvasses are divided into simple areas, often two squares with a larger field of color. His work has both a flatness and a spaciousness. His use of proportion and color strike strong emotional chords. I focus on the horizon in a lot of my work.

In one respect, the horizon line does not exist. It is a virtual image created by our perspective. It moves when we move, like a rainbow. It is also defines a limit of our perception. We can’t see beyond the horizon yet we know full well the earth and sky continue on beyond the horizon.

People look at photographs expecting them to tell a single story. I like to make that more problematic. Often people only see the surfaces of things. I am interested in looking below the surface and behind things to suggest a wider vision.

In art there is the oriental notion of soft eyes where the viewer focuses on the big picture and does not focus on the tiny details. The viewer sees the large abstract shapes and the relationship of everything to the whole.

The oriental notion contrasts with the western notion of hard eyes where the viewer focuses on small sharp details. I am interested in finding a way to embrace both ways of seeing. Carlos Castaneda describes a meditation technique of gazing at the horizon while focusing on a distant point. It suggests a synthesis of both soft and hard eyes and the shift in consciousness it takes to see both at the same time. I constantly find myself shifting in and out of different ways of looking. I am pushing myself to see more and to see in many ways.

KL: You mentioned once that people compare some of your images to Rorschach tests. They see different things. Did you ever make a list of the ways people interpret your images?

JPC: I collect them. Some responses are highly individual. I remember one little kid, about six, who came in and looked at a big blue cloud and said, “There’s a giant sneeze!” Other responses seem more archetypal. I have one image of a golden sky and it is really odd. Every time I show it at a gallery, a woman, a stranger, approaches me. She will share a very intimate story about losing a significant male figure in her life—a husband, brother or lover. I don’t know where that comes from.

I enjoy talking to people about my images. Listening to them makes me see my work in a different way and helps expand my vision. That is why I see a piece of visual art as a conversation between an artist and the viewer. I learn a great deal about my work by listening to people.

“I believe every picture has a life of its own. Once you let it out into the world, it finds its own course and every viewer interprets it slightly differently, bringing something to the conversation between artist and viewer.”

KL: I notice you seem to use symmetry a lot.

JPC: That happened by accident one day when I was working on the light table. I was looking for a cloud image for a certain picture. I happened to have a mirror there and as I moved it across the light table, something caught my eye. I didn’t know what it was. I found a cloud reflected in the mirror symmetrically. It was a marvelous surprise! It was better than the image I was trying to make. Now I often use a mirror to look at images on the light table to check how symmetry will play in an image. It creates complicated Rorschach patterns I find compelling. And it leaves ample room for the viewer to bring their own interpretation to the image. Symmetry is easy to do in the computer. It is much harder with paint. I find it helps to trust the process, to let it inform you as you work.

I believe every picture has a life of its own. Once you let it out into the world, it finds its own course and every viewer interprets it slightly differently, bringing something to the conversation between artist and viewer. I celebrate that sharing, that interactivity between the viewer and the image.

KL: Do you ever go back and work some more on an image?

JPC: Sure. Several of my images have evolved over time. If I see that an image can be improved, I change it.

KL: I find that for the first and second looks, many of your images look like a straight photograph. Then it slowly dawns on me that something has been done. “This is impossible,” I say to myself. Is this what you are trying to achieve?

JPC: Ha, ha, ha! I love it! It is exactly what I am trying to do. If you call attention to the fact that an image has been altered, you guide the viewer’s attention to it in a certain way. I am interested in understanding how we look at pictures and in understanding the many assumptions we bring to pictures when we look at them. If the process is present within the work but not immediately obvious, the image asks us to look more carefully. That’s ultimately what making image’s is about for me – it’s a discipline for looking more carefully.

Of course, I would not alter an image in a documentary situation. I wouldn’t feel right about that. Most of my images are fine art—to be enjoyed—and if I can entice viewers to spend more time understanding an image, and image making, and their responses to images, I feel successful. Especially if it makes us examine the way we look and the way we experience the world we see.

KL: I remember the Western mountain image (Oriens) where the light on each part of the scene was different and you pulled them together.

JPC: Yes, I made a sequence of exposures. Each exposure caught the light that thrilled me on a certain part of the scene at different times. It took me almost an hour to make all the exposures. I never moved the camera. Instead the light moved. Then in the computer, I pulled together the best-lit parts of each element in the scene until I had a new image that represented many moments at once. It’s an image that would be impossibile see in one instant but its equivalent could be seen through time.

KL: What do you mean when you say you paint with photographs?

JPC: Rather than painting from photographs or painting on photographs, I paint with photographs. What I mean is I bring all the strategies a painter uses to making photographic images. Often I start with a blank canvas, and then I create compositions by controlling scale, shape, proportions, and perspective to construct an image. This contrasts with the dominant way of making photographs which establishes these relationships before the moment of exposure and fixes them permanently after the moment of exposure. Mine is a process of drawing from many moments and many places. I use the techniques of painting and photography to create an image. These days I don’t rendering the elements in my images by hand, but I could, and may once again in the future.

KL: Do you still do paintings?

JPC: Oh yes. I constantly make studies usually in pen and ink or water color or pastel. I have many studies for the seascapes primarily to study proportion and color. Recently I have been drawing small portions of my wife’s body. There is something about making images with the hand. I am interested in the quality that handwork brings to an image as opposed to a photograph, which can be made in an instant. Reproducing an image by hand brings a sensibility to the work I often see missing from photographs.

I plan to work more with drawn elements, particularly calligraphic marks, text, symbols, etc. You might have seen the image of the long path in the desert with the spotted clouds above it? That path might be considered a painted element. The cracks in the land surface were removed to create it.

KL: You have traveled extensively and seen a lot. Is there a place that has changed the way you see or work?

JPC: Two environments have influenced me the most. First is the seacoast. I love the surface of the water and the way the water meets the sky. I love the waves, the wind coming off the water. I love the way light dances on and in the water. Then there’s the mystery of what’s underneath the water that teases you. If I were anything other than a visual artist, I would probably be a marine biologist, perhaps a Jungian psychologist. The other place I love is the desert. I love the sense of space and timelessness in both.

KL: What do you call yourself? Digital artist? Photographer?

JPC: I call myself a visual artist. I make pictures that do not fit neatly into the categories of painting or photography. My images are an interesting hybrid of both. I am starting to incorporate some motion in my images drawing them more toward film. All these disciplines—film, painting, photography—share the same impulse: making pictures.

KL: Do you work alone or do you use an assistant?

JPC: There is someone who assists me now. That is a very recent luxury. When I work in the field, I photograph alone. When I work in the studio, I am accompanied.

“I am interested in understanding how we look at pictures and in understanding the many assumptions we bring to pictures when we look at them.”

KL: Do you still do any black and white photography?

JPC: Sure. The Sensual Land series is monochromatic. The nudes I have been doing of my wife in the landscape are all “black and white”. I shoot color film and convert it to black and white. These recent images have been platinum prints made from digital files of color transparencies. If color does not serve a picture, I take it out. I wanted these images to be sensual, dreamlike and classic in style.

KL: Do you write poetry?

JPC: Yes. I don’t show my poetry to many people. I also play the piano. I find working in other art forms helps deepen my understanding of the creative process. I also write. There are the conversations with other artists and my new technical book about PhotoShop has just been published.

KL: Tell me about your new book.

JPC: It is called Adobe PhotoShop Master Class. It is a PhotoShop book unlike any other. It has a fine artist’s perspective. It’s organized around visual principles—such as atmospheric perspective, depth of field, etc – not the software’s interface. It is first and foremost an artist’s book—not a software book.

KL: How do you and your wife Alexandra work together?

JPC: She is a graphic designer. Alex designs my books and all my promotional materials. She manages my web page. She is my business manager and partner. She is an artist in her own right. I could not do it without her.

KL: Who is the boss?

JPC: Who do you think? (Laughter)

KL: She is also your favorite model. Did your wife become your model or did you marry your model?

JPC: My wife became my model. We have been married for ten years. We met in high school in 1982 and have been together ever since. She inspires me and challenges me to look at things in different ways. She relates to the world similarly but also very differently than I do.

KL: What are some of the markets you have found for your work?

JPC: My work is primarily fine art. I sell prints. My wife is my agent. I have galleries representing me internationally.

KL: Do you do stock?

JPC: On a limited basis with Corbis’ fine art division.

KL: Do you do commercial assignments?

JPC: Yes, when they happen but I don’t go out seeking them. I also enjoy teaching because it keeps me on my toes.

KL: What is your greatest achievement so far?

JPC: Making it this far. Perseverance is essential.

KL: What was your biggest mistake?

JPC: I make it all the time. I don’t always carry a camera and I often regret it.

KL: If there were one thing you could do differently, what would it be?

JPC: There are times when I am too focused on my work. My friend Tim Morrissey has this wonderful line: “The secret of life is to enjoy the passage of time.” I wish I had worked on enjoying life more and aim to do so in the future.

KL: How has your web site helped you?

JPC: I think it has increased my exposure. It is a resource for people to get information about me and it saves us time sending out résumés and brochures, and answering technical questions. We approach it primarily as an advertising and marketing tool but that too is changing.

KL: Where do you think photography is headed now?

JPC: I hope it is headed for a big wake up call about what photography is and can be. It is time to reconsider our notions of photography and stop taking photographic documents for granted. As viewers, we need to become more aware of what we are looking at, how we are looking, and how we are guided to look in specific ways. I think new technologies will lead to new kinds of images and new ways of expression. I don’t think the old ways will disappear or become less valuable. The new technology can support the older more traditional ways of looking. I hope this challenges us to look, look again and continue looking.

KL: What does your dad think of the new technology?

JPC: He is really curious. We bought him a PowerBook several years ago. He calls it his lapdog instead of his laptop. I am not sure he knows how to turn it on. I have retouched a couple of his negatives and we printed an edition of platinum prints. He does not need to change to continue making his photographs. Nor does he want to but he is interested in what I am doing and is very supportive.

KL: Is there still a future for photography, as we know it? Or is everything going to be done by computers?

JPC: That is the kind of thinking that too many people have been led to. Our current relationship to digital technology has fostered this thinking. The problem is photography is about making light recordings. It does not matter if we use glass plates, film or CCDs — what matters is what we do with them and how we do it. Very traditional photographs can and have been made digitally. Some great images fit into that category, many others don’t.

KL: What advice would you give our young readers considering photography as a career?

JPC: Educate yourself about the history of traditional photography. Look to other traditions and study how the larger history of visual art impacts the craft. Photography was invented in a time when painting was important and polarized itself against painting to develop its identity.

I think it is important to understand where new technologies come from. Many digital terms, such as the unsharp mask or curves, come from traditional photography. Understanding how things were done before helps one brings things forward and supports innovation.

KL: How do you want to be remembered?

JPC: I’d like to be remembered as a good husband, friend and father. As an artist whose passion made a difference to many people. I hope to be remembered for insight, sensitivity, open-mindedness, compassion and generosity. If I can inspire one other person to do thier very best, I will have led a life worth living. Perhaps I can do more…

KL: How has it been to work in the visual art world when your name is so close to that of a world famous photographic artist, your father?

JPC: Actually, his name is Paul John Jerome Caponigro and my name is John Paul Caponigro. The mistaken identity gets old quickly. People meet me and are surprised how young I am and compliment me on his work, thinking I am Dad. Dad gets it too. He meets people who read my articles in magazines or see my images in galleries or publications and they compliment him on my work. The mistaken identity is really not the problem. Inappropriate expectations and assumptions are. We should both be treated as unique individuals.

Dad has been great teacher, provider and mentor. Through him, I have known so many other artists who have taught me more. In short it’s more of a blessing than a curse.

KL: What is your ambition to do next?

JPC: There are three different books at three different publishers which will determine the course of my life for the near future. And Alex and I want to start a family.

Retiring after 36 years with Kodak, Ken Lassiter moved to South Florida and is a freelance writer and consultant in photography education with clients in Australia and the USA