Recently I had a wide-ranging conversation with Richard Bernabe for his Beyond The Lens podcast. I shared stories about being raised in a family of artists and how making art has helped me deepen my connections with the natural world and sustain me during these challenging times. I hope you find inspiration and fuel for your creative life when you listen to it.
Enjoy this new interview where I discuss my photographic upbringing with Jill Waterman on B&H’s Explora blog.
“When it comes to photographic dynasties, the name Caponigro holds a privileged position at the top of the list. The father/son duo of Paul and John Paul Caponigro are masters of their respective crafts, spanning many years and a broad reach, from the muted tonalities and classical elegance of Paul’s large-format landscapes to John Paul’s complex, ethereal digital composites.
In 2016, B&H Photo hosted father and son as invited speakers at the B&H OPTIC Conference, where they both presented their work to great acclaim. Offstage, they also chatted about art, nature, and spirit with the Explora podcast team. After recently drawing inspiration from this archived content, we decided to take a deeper dive into the family history and respective working methods of these legendary artists in celebration of Father’s Day.
We caught up with John Paul Caponigro in a conversation over Zoom, and we present excerpts from our chat below, with their 2016 OPTIC presentations and podcast audio interspersed with the text.”
Your father makes large-format photographs of landscape and nature. Outside of his artistic practice, did he or your mother make family snapshots when you were growing up?
When I was young, photography seemed to be a serious thing. It seemed like there were very few snapshots, but there were a few and both of my parents seem to find more as the years go by.
I think my mom had an Olympus 35mm with roll film. I don’t even remember whether Dad had film rolls or not at that time. He did later when I started doing some things. But, when I was younger, it didn’t occur to me to ask why Mom would send her film to the drugstore and get these little 3 x 5″ prints. I was just watching what they were doing.
Do you have any early memories of your father teaching you about art or photography?
There are many stories. One time, Dad started talking about the color of the black-and-white prints he was making. “What color?” I asked. He then showed me how papers and developers and toners offered different subtle colorations, and how that changed the spatial dynamics within them, and our emotional responses to them. After that, I never thought of black-and-white or gray as colorless. You could even say they’re my favorite colors.
But, when you think of my father, just remember, there is no routine. He had certain papers and developers that he would favor. But he was very much interested in how each one had special characteristics, and wanted to become familiar with that, almost like becoming familiar with the tone of an instrument, matching the image with the characteristics of the paper / developer combination. He printed like his mother cooked, to taste. I remember getting the first pizza lesson from my grandmother. And she says, “Now you take a handful of salt,” and I’m like, “Nona, your hand is this big, and my hand is this big. So, give me your hand.” And I poured the salt from her hand into the measuring cup, and said, “OK, I’m going to write that down.”
So, it’s much more of a print-to-taste kind of thing. He just wasn’t so technical. But it’s hard to say that, because he did his homework. My dad really stripped-down Ansel Adams’s zone system into something that was very practical and approachable. He had done all of that, and then at a certain point, he liberated himself. You know, the technical can become an obsession. It can be what drives the show. And, he’s enough of an artist to want to let the emotion, and then the perception, drive the process.
You met many important photographers and artists as a youth, who were friends of your father’s. Are there any memorable stories you can share from these encounters?
My father used to tease Ansel Adams that he had a cloud stick in his bag. So being a kid of 6 or 7, I went looking for it. I was young enough to believe in magic, and I was really disappointed to find out it was just a joke. Decades later I got my own cloud stick—Adobe Photoshop.
I was too young to take one of Ansel’s workshops, but I certainly watched him on opening nights, and evenings at dinner, and so many other times. As a kid, Ansel and Eliot Porter were two of my heroes because they were so involved with environmental organizations. But, also the fact that Ansel had this whole workshop program in the middle of Yosemite Valley, it was really quite magical. And then he would invite other artists to come in; he had created his own community. There aren’t that many workshop programs out there like that, still today. It might have been the only one at that point. It was pretty neat to see that whole thing.
My relationship with Eliot Porter came out of my mom designing most of his books after a certain point. He lived right down the road, in Tesuque, New Mexico. He was tremendously influential to me in so many ways. He had such a keen, scientific mind, and this endless curiosity, this restlessness, this activeness socially, or at least environmentally. He was just a super guy.
You’ll find much more on B&H including two videos and a podcast.
Shortly after the opening of my new exhibition Land Within Land, Scott David Gordon recently interviewed me for his podcast Austin Talks. He picked up on many of the ideas I shared during my gallery talks … and ran with them.
As he said, “If you are looking for a technical discussion on Photoshop and cameras to choose this is not the one. We had a fairly philosophical conversation about many subjects including defining a mission in life, being present, nature, spirit of place, creativity, play, and how to find your own way as an artist and a human. I love how thoughtful and specific he is with his words and wisdom. It’s no wonder he is a sought-after lecturer and teacher.”
I hope you enjoy our conversation!
Find out more about Scott David Gordon here.
Listen to more Austin Talks here.
In this video, I share some of my feelings about photography and thoughts on color.
Find out more about X-Rite here.
Read more about color management here.
Learn more in my photography and printing workshops.
Get my free Gear Guide here.
All About The Image’s Woodrow Walden did a short and sweet interview with me by email recently.
You can read the final results here.
And you can compare the rough cut Q&A version here.
WW Have you always known you wanted to be an artist, or did you have other aspirations as a child?
JPC Art has always been a part of my life but I didn’t commit to making it a career until graduating from high school. At one point, I seriously considered becoming a marine biologist.
WW You were raised in a very artistic household. Your Father of course, is photographer Paul Caponigro, and your Mother is graphic designer Eleanor Caponigro. How much influence would you say that had on your decision to become a photographer and eventually a photo-based digital artist?
JPC Both of my parents have had a tremendous influence on me. They laid my foundations in photography (dad) and painting (mom).
WW What was your first camera?
JPC I don’t remember. The most significant camera I remember receiving as a gift was one of the two Dierdorff cameras my father used to photograph the megalithic monuments in the British Isles.
WW How old were you when took your first photo and what was the subject and do you still have it?
JPC I don’t remember. I remember my first significant moment in photography was photographing a black cat in an Irish field with my mother when I was less than four years old – and the amazed look on my mother’s face when the cat couldn’t be found in any of the several images we took.
Alumni Dianne Morton interviewed me as part of her graduate studies.
She asked great questions, which I recommend you answer yourself.
Here are my answers.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
I was always driven to make images – even before I could talk. I was fascinated with two things about photography in particular; one, photography can be used to explore abstraction and metaphor; two, two people using the same equipment side-by-side can make very different images that reflect their personal natures. Pursuing painting first, the invention of Photoshop was my personal tipping point that made photography my primary medium.
Which photographers influenced or currently influence you?
Early influences include my father, Eliot Porter, and Ansel Adams. Photographers who challenge my current thinking in stimulating ways include Richard Misrach, Edward Burtinsky, Chris Jordan and Joel Peter Witkin. Many of my most important artistic influences come from people working in media other than photography – painters, filmmakers, sculptors, writers and even composers/musicians.
I’ve written quite a bit about my influences on my blog – and I plan to write more. It’s a useful process I recommend to everyone.
What motivates you to continue making photographs (intellectually or emotionally)?
I love doing the work. It’s endlessly challenging and rewarding.
Is there one particular piece of advice you could give to someone who has just picked up a camera for the first time?
Get clear about what you want to do and why. Only pursue opportunities that further that in some way. Make plans but stay flexible so you can make the most of every new opportunity.
How did you get from being an aspiring photographer to actually doing it full time, for a living?
I decided to do it and worked hard to make it happen. I made a plan. I pursued new opportunities that supported my long term goals. I didn’t plan to write, make public presentations, lead workshops, or consult for corporations; those opportunities presented themselves and they’ve all contributed to my overall success and the fulfillment of my long term goals.
Where do you think you have succeeded or failed?
I’ve succeeded in being a positive influence on the medium of photography and making positive contributions to many members of the photographic community. I haven’t succeeded in making substantial contributions that address my environmental concerns – yet.
What’s in your camera bag and what technology/software do you use?
Canon 5DMKIII and Lightroom/Photoshop. See my website for more on the tools I use,.
What is one thing you will never get tired of photographing?
What is one thing you do NOT like to photograph?
Jump back in time….what would you do differently if you could? Do you have a cautionary tale?
I’d steal a little time every day to work on my most important goals. Compound interest pays big dividends. Big chunks of time are hard to find and often compromised or stolen completely. I’m still trying to get this right. Practice makes better. No matter where we are, I recommend we all start practicing this now.
Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?
Exhalation I. It heralded a personal break through when my creative voice became stronger and clearer. I’ve had more responses to that image than any other, some of them very personal and touching.
Here’s a link to something I wrote about Exhalation I.
If you could sit across any one photographer with a big cup of awesome coffee, and talk photography/shop for an hour, who would it be and what would you talk about?
What a great question! It has so many possible answers. The final decision would be based on how honest the other person would be and how much they would be willing to reveal. And an hour’s not enough. How about an evening with dinner and wine?
I’d like to sit down with Alfred Steiglitz and Minor White and go further/deeper with the concept of equivalence. I have a feeling part of the solution would be to explore White’s mention of resonance.
I’d like to sit down with Eliot Porter (and possibly Ansel Adams at the same time, if there was total trust and no posturing), to review the history of photographers making environmental contributions and brainstorm ways of making more effective environmental contributions today (if he/they were up to date on what’s happened since his/their death). But then, after engaging this question, I realize I should do this now with Robert Glenn Ketchum. Maybe I should even write a book about it. See what a great question that was?
What’s your favorite quote?
“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
Above all, what inspires your art the most?
Finally, can you sum up your photography in just four words?
Creative Conscientious Environmental Interaction
Enjoy more interviews here.
“Unlocking The Secrets Of The Creative Process – Part 3” A Conversation With Photographer Eric Meola
Photographer Eric Meola and I share our insights on the creative process in this three-part conversation. In the third installment we discuss the role of chance and surprise in creativity.
EM: In describing how he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan said that he found himself writing what he called “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long.”
“And out of it,” he recalled, “I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me.”
If nothing else, Dylan has always been incredibly prolific. “Practice, practice, practice,” says Bruce Springsteen. And then one day there’s your father’s image “Galaxy Apple.” Is that part of what process is about … the yin and yang between chaos and discipline?
JP: Process is how you get there. It doesn’t just happen. And it unfolds through time. The final results may have come quickly, but it took a long time for Dylan to get into the specific state of flow that would produce his song. The same is true for everyone, including photographers.
This reminds me of a time when I introduced a friend of mine to my father. He said, “Oh, you’re that photographer. Gosh I’d like to have your career. All those 1/125ths of a second. What’s that add up to? A 20-minute career?”
Dylan’s statement, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” seems related to Picasso’s “It takes a long time to grow young.”
EM: And Dylan as a teenager in Hibbing, Minnesota, used to listen all night to Hank Williams and Little Richard on the radio—it was all part of the “process” of gearing up for “Bringin’ It All Back Home.”
You mention using a Spirograph as a child to make circles, ellipses and various radiating designs. And some of these patterns continue to show up in your latest imagery. How important is a sense of wonder to photography, or any art form?
JP: How important is a sense of wonder to a life well lived? I think it’s essential. Keeping our sense of wonder alive and well increases our openness, curiosity, sensitivity, perception, playfulness, passion, pleasure, and many other positive benefits. This is related to keeping our inner child or the childlike (not childish) aspects of ourselves active and vibrant.
EM: We’ve discussed chaos versus discipline in art. What about a happy accident—serendipity? What role does “chance” play in process? In the film Pollock, Ed Harris shows Jackson Pollock stumbling onto the process for his drip paintings. Do you ever look at something you’ve done or have been thinking about and suddenly make a leap to a concept that had not occurred to you before? I’m also thinking of Kubrick’s famous visual metaphor early in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the ape throws a bone that morphs into a rotating space station.
JP: There are two questions here. My answer to both is yes …
“Unlocking The Secrets Of The Creative Process – Part 2” A Conversation With Photographer Eric Meola
Photographer Eric Meola and I share our insights on the creative process in this three-part conversation. In the second installment, we share our influences from photography to poetry. I also discuss my fascination with and the influence of quotes.
EM: How long have you collected quotes? You seem to have hundreds if not thousands at your site.
JP: At an early age, I started noticing that most of us use quotes in our daily conversation and even in our internal dialogs. I really want to know what’s influencing my thinking and why. Sometimes we know who to attribute them to, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes they really are unattributable or anonymous. Often we paraphrase them, less frequently we use them precisely. I still marvel at people who can quote paragraphs and even pages, word for word. I haven’t learned that skill. Currently, I’m limited to a few phrases. But that’s OK. I prefer quotes that are short and sweet. Like haiku poetry, short quotes can almost instantaneously create a powerful impression with just a few words. These highly distilled packets are both impactful and memorable.
Often the idea behind the quote is linked with its author. Proper attribution is important. It’s good form to give credit where credit is due. It helps you understand what, when, and why something has been said. It helps you clarify sources, including yourself.
Sometimes these ideas become so common that sources are forgotten and we hear them paraphrased. Have ideas like this been repeated so frequently that they’ve become a part of the fabric of our minds? More recently, I’ve also become interested in how these ideas echo through the ages. Here’s one example. “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Is this Confucius, The Talmud, or Anais Nin? Do we default to the earliest source? Or are there some ideas that are pan-cultural or even inevitable?
There are so many great books to read that I figure no book is worth reading if I’m not interested in making marks in the margins; one mark indicates a quote I want to be able to retrieve.
I used to collect my favorite quotes in folders filled with photocopies. Now I collect them digitally. Sharing quotes in social networks has further stimulated my activity—it’s interesting to see who reacts to what and how, and even what people don’t react to. You can find more quotes, almost daily, in my Twitter and Facebook feeds.
I wish I had a photographic memory. I’d love to remember them all—precisely.
EM: What are some of your favorite quotes?
JP: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” That’s from Marcel Proust.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do.” — Rumi
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Here’s a link to a fuller set of my favorite quotes.
And here’s a link to a set of your favorite quotes.
Also, here’s a link to sets of other photographer’s favorite quotes.
A Japanese proverb says, “When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” I think of the quotes we remember as the mental company we keep.
Read more of Part 2 here.
Read Part 1 here.
Read my interview of Eric here.