Variation I E

Camera Arts

by Sean Kernan

This article first appeared in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of Camera Arts.

John Paul Caponigro is a visual artist and writer living in Cushing, Maine. He attended Yale University and UC Santa Cruz earning his BA in both Art and Literature. Trained as a painter, he learned photography from his father, Paul Caponigro. In 1992 he began an artist in residency at the Center for Creative Imaging and has been working with digital technology ever since. His work has drawn international attention. He is published,
collected, exhibits, and teaches internationally. His book Adobe Photoshop Master Class was recently published. Elemental, a monograph, and Dialogs, a collection of conversations and portraits of other artists seen first as abridged version in the pages of View Camera and Camera Arts, will follow. See more of his work and writings at

John Paul Caponigro presents a strong challenge yet to the use of the word "photography" to describe what he does. He photographs, but that doesn’t really describe his work. Adding "digital" only covers the mechanics. Perhaps we could just say he sees, with both an inner and outer eye. About the new technology, he is as versed in it as anyone around. More importantly he uses it for his work, but it is not romantically involved with it. It lets him prepare what he sees in his mind’s eye so that others can see it too. So when we spoke we wound up not talking about technical matters at all (you can get all that from his new book), but about the making of art. In addition to being a talented emerging artist, he's also an articulate one, and that's where the fun of talking with him comes in. We began our conversation about nine months ago when he interviewed me for the May/June, 1999 issue of View Camera, and we continue it here as I interview him.


Sean Kernan Let’s start right at the toughest question. What is it that makes art work good?

John Paul Caponigro One of my litmus tests for being in the presence of good work is the absence of breath. In the presence of great work we catch our breath. "Ah!" We are arrested. There's silence. There's a physical change. Japanese, French or American, all breathe in, "Ah!" Inspiration. Think of the root of that word. I can’t give you a formula for inspiring awe. But I have experienced it. And I can share it. It's contagious, which makes it even more wonderful. And others have shared it with me. You for instance.

SK I think I’d add that art is good when it changes the geography of the mind, enlarges the artist’s mind, and the viewer’s mind. And that’s often painful. And that pain contrasts with the artistic process as I think you see it. What about art that scalds one to awareness? Diane Arbus, a lot of Robert Frank.

JPC Geography of the mind! That strikes a chord within me. I agree that the aim of art is a transformation of consciousness, and sometimes we do need a shock to the system. We need to look at things we wouldn't ordinarily. If the recognition of what's difficult serves a constructive end or even simply liberation then I respect it. I do not, however, like shock for shock's sake. And I do not like manufactured pain, I like it even less than manufactured joy. I want the real thing. It's easier to be discontent than it is content. It's easy to deconstruct, but in tearing things down what do you leave behind? Maybe you don't know, but are you concerned with that when you're doing it? I think it is extremely hard to deal with negativity responsibly. And you should be up to the burden if you take it on. At the very least you should be consumed with a desperate need to know how things really are and willing to call it like you see it. I'm uncomfortable with a neurotic fixation with negativity or worse mere titillation. I do like difficult questions. And I like to hear about and see the efforts of those who genuinely struggle with them. I think it's heroic. But I don't like false heroes.

SK You and I both think that thinking and talking about how art is made is an interesting thing. (Paradoxically, I disagree with that at the same time.) But do you think it improves your own art?

JPC Paradoxically I agree with your disagreement. Yes and no. I make pictures in silence. Then I think. Then I talk. Then I make pictures in silence again. At its best critical thinking can reveal. It can make things clearer. It helps the conscious mind communicate with the unconscious mind. It helps us communicate with one another. Thinking enriches my experience of other people's work. Sometimes an appreciation of what someone else has done offers me new insights. Sometimes this leads me into new territory, either consciously or unconsciously.

On the other hand, too much of a good thing can be bad. You could think yourself into something very clever, but not inspired. Or you could think yourself right out of a good thing because you couldn't justify it.

When critical thinking proposes to be the 'one true' or the 'only' way of understanding art, then it does a great disservice to the work, and ultimately to the human spirit. It can diminish or stop its living breath, sometimes permanently. There are many kinds of understanding, not just critical. We need 'critical feeling' to go along with 'critical thinking' Finding depth and balance in thinking and feeling each seems to be the real challenge. In general, I'm tremendously stimulated, and I find I have many more ideas about things I want to do than I have time to do them. This forces me to make hard choices about what I'm going to spend my time on. This is perhaps the most important question. After all my answer determines what I become. My work is my life. My life is my work. Art reveals my life to me.

Let's try a metaphor for the way this works. For the artist, working on an artistic problem is like bombarding invisible particles with other invisible particles to 'see' it. We track the presence of the unknown or the unseen through the residues its presence leaves behind, like tracing the pattern of a magnetic field with iron filings. We can see the effects of the field, but not the field itself. And that field is dynamic and changing, not static. So are we. So as artists we are left with artifacts that signify the presence of the invisible although the artifact is never a substitute for the experience. But a piece of the artist's experience is shared through the artifact.

SK And it provokes that further experience in the viewer.

JPC How that happens I don't know. Perhaps it’s like a magnet that imparts a charge to another object, or an energy field influencing or even creating another. In any case, the artifact can only be a trigger for another authentic experience in the viewer, never a substitute for the original experience. And the artifact is only truly resonant if the creator's experience that generated it is authentic. That usually happens when the artists has begun to operate outside the boundaries of his/her current understanding, when he/she has begun to move towards another level. Sacred art is often seen as a transformative experience for the viewer, and most authentic traditions recognize that this can only happen if the experience of making the artifact was transformative for the artist. Robert Frost says, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."

So the artist has to get the ball rolling. He or she has to have an authentic experience to start with. Then viewers can have their own experiences. The art is the catalyst.

This business of communicating is really fascinating. I was listening to a tape that mentioned neurolinguistic programming. It said that in listening and understanding someone more than 55% of it has to do with gesture, eye contact, rhythm, breath, those kinds of things, and another 35% was intonation and volume. And the rest, 10%, was content, the denotative words. So as we talk we are dancing and singing. What does that say about the conversation we‚re having? I think there's a reason we are having this conversation face to face. What does that say about the written word? We give each other this performance. Other's get the transcription. That's true of photography too. We have the experience. Later we look at the traces.

SK And yet if the result is that triggered experience, the transcription must be full of nuance and the implication of everything that was there in the experience. It must prompt the reader or viewer into supplying from his or her own experience what was stripped out in the transcription.

JPC Yes. Realizing that we must prompt is very important. Viewing and reading are not passive, they are active. The good thing is that communication can happen on so many levels. Astonishingly, we get it. I'm certain we don't get it all. I'm certain we get it in our own ways. But we do get it.

SK With all the possibilities that present themselves how do you choose what to work or, to start on?

JPC This is the toughest question because in answering it you ultimately decide how you spend your life, and that determines what you become. If experience has told us anything it is that there will be surprises along the way. The surprises will inevitably alter the course of a life. So we proceed knowing that we don't have enough information to make fully informed choices. We take a leap of faith. It’s best done with our eyes wide open. But as I do it I look for signs of life, I dowse for the strongest pulse. And I carry Joseph Campbell's phrase with me, "Follow your bliss." If you are inspired you're more likely to produce inspired work. Inspiration brings a physical sensation with it. It's a vibration. Light, music, matter, they're all vibrations. W. H. Auden said a good poem makes a noise like the click of the lid of a box.

I don't insist that the work become exactly what I expected it to be when I started. I listen to it. I listen for a ring of truth. Sometimes what I find surprises me. Often we have to get out of the way of ourselves for it to begin. We need to be empty if we seek to be filled. It's likely that the artist, the thought he or she has, the action taken, and the artifact generated are all part of a single dynamic process rather than separate pieces. Instead of breaking ourselves into ocean, evaporation, cloud, land, rain, and river, we could think of ourselves as the hydrologic cycle. Art is best when it's a living process. It grows, it changes, it breathes, it flows. So do we. Everywhere there are signs of life.

SK I’m interested that your description of the artistic process seems a bit more lofty than my own experience, which is that the making of art is full of difficulty. Van Gogh described it as "coal miner’s work." Be empty? I may have done it, but I don’t recall having felt that. Recollected in tranquility I’ve thought of my art making with a kind of satisfaction, but then I approach it again and it turns hot and difficult. To me being an artist is like being a mouse that has been caught by a huge cat.

JPC Cat and mouse? I don't like the sound of that. At the very least I am the eater as well as the eaten. I will not surrender to anything but grace. I don't find it's as difficult as I am. If I'm difficult I figure I deserve myself. If it seems difficult I figure I haven't got the right perspective. Often what's most difficult about ourselves is our ego, our constructs of who we are, and our preconceptions. A great deal of the challenge is to get out of the way of ourselves so that we can truly see what's going on. Ultimately I think it has to do with recognition and acknowledgement. "Look at me." Seeing can be a transformative experience. The longer I look, the more I keep thinking/feeling that the seer and the seen are not as separate as we have been led to think they are.

Have I given you a copy of "A Snake Is Not A Symbol"? It's from James Hillman's Dream Animals. It starts out by giving a dozen different psychological interpretations of what a snake is, everything from phallus to Kundalini spiritual energy. And then he says, wait, if we accept any one of these definitions we stop the living, breathing part of the snake. And if we try to interpret our dream and give it one definition we stop it. He says that you really need to live with it, cultivate it, ask questions of it, you need to be with it in order to understand everything it has to say to you. He calls this process 'reanimating the image'. I think we need to do that with pictures. We need to take pictures back from fixed associations and words to let them continue to live.

Perhaps we need to get away from capital A Art. I had a student once who said "What about just doing it for yourself? Or even, what about art therapy?" He reminded me that art has many functions and it's not always a professional thing. He got to me. I said, "You're absolutely right." Any kind of art can serve as a bridge to a real understanding of what is out there and in here. I think everybody has a talent, though it may not be making pictures. Everybody has some genius. It's a matter of finding it. Perhaps we could all be great

SK I’m not sure I agree that we could all be great. I think there are different kinds of intelligence, and I’ve come to think that everyone has greater potential than they get near-including me. But I think what makes one great or even good, is work-hard, serious work. That’s how you unearth the gifts, and I think a part of the definition of a good artist is one who works in a focussed, almost ferocious way. I see that in every artist I admire.

JPC I have faith that everyone has genius. I don't presume to know what it is but I have faith that it's there. Getting at it is difficult. There is potential and there is action and there is a gulf in between the two. I think it's a tragedy when we don't bridge it. But then I think I may have to work on that attitude. It may be judgmental. Who knows, perhaps I am blind to how it is manifested? I like the word 'ferocious.' We should be more ferocious in our passions. That might entice the appearance of genius. It might also appear if we fell in love with our subjects.

SK Falling in love with your subject!

JPC That's a little dramatic isn't it?

SK Well, I was just thinking of your pictures of your wife, Alex, which are so lovely.

JPC Well in that case its absolutely accurate, it's not melodramatic. I was really impressed with Callahan's photographs of Eleanor and Steiglitz's photographs of O'Keefe. Particularly Callahans, which were produced out of a long life shared. I can't tell you what their life or their relationship was like, but I can tell you an understanding beyond words is communicated in those photographs. Harry understood Eleanor on a level that was far deeper than that of the great majority of men looking at women. Both of those bodies of work stand as a challenge to me to bring the complexity of a long and deep relationship to my work. That's the value of staying with something for a long time. It could be any subject matter. If you fall in love with something you see it with fresh eyes and it challenges you and it inspires you. You lose your breath. I think you and I both value this kind of inspired, unmediated response.

SK I tend to, yes. I'm a child of the sixties and you're a child of a child of the sixties, so it is probably encoded in us. But before we go off on this, I want to raise something. You talked about your response to Rothko, about walking into this white room and there's this luminous orange, or violet or magenta painting, or all of them. Retinal effects! And you just suspend there, stop breathing. And I wonder if Rothko had this experience of his own work. Or Van Gogh.

JPC On some level I think an artist's experience of a work is very different. On others I think it is very similar. It's the experience that is beyond words, the essence of the thing, that I think remains the same. We're all unique receptors with special capabilities. We also all have similar sensory apparatus. The artist goes through the creation of the artifact, physically, emotionally, temporally and then experiences the artifact. The viewer experiences the artifact first and then divines the process through the traces of its creation that are left. So on one level viewing the work is a reenactment. But I think this is only on the most essential level. A new perspective is acquired. Art is a distillation. In one sense the viewer has a less prejudiced eye when looking at work which an artist has to struggle very hard to reclaim, this is due to the artist’s attachment to the work, which can be both positive and negative. According to what I've read, Rothko underwent a profound spiritual struggle. In many ways I think it crushed him. I think that tension is what threw an electric charge into the work. I relate to that very strongly. But in looking at his work I am not driven to desperation.

SK That’s the work part, the difficult part. And when he was done did he ever stand back and look at the painting and enjoy it? I kind of doubt it. I'm not sure artists ever get to enjoy what we get to enjoy about their work. This it's a thought I’m just coming to that others have a different and generally easier view of a piece than the artist ever does. I think I’d be oddly comforted to find that artists are as unsatisfied with their work as I am with mine.

JPC I understand the problem. When I see this at work I'm reminded I'm not alone. But seeing this doesn't comfort me. It would comfort me if I could offer confirmation, affirmation, or even a helpful insight. It would comfort me if I could introduce them to someone or something else that could do the same. If another artist expresses these difficulties I am empathetic towards him or her. I wouldn't wish to take the struggle away from anyone. It's vital. But I would wish that they could find a counterbalance to it. I think there's an imbalance here. We are our own worst critics. That's both good and bad. This is the way it usually is, but does it have to be that way? Perhaps we don't have to be just one way all the time. Perhaps we should reclaim pride, and I don't mean hubris. If I see pride coupled with humility I see great strength. "He takes great pride in his work." is generally a fine compliment. It indicates self-reliance and personal responsibility. Perhaps we should reclaim joy. There are those moments when we feel that we are not totally responsible for the work, that a part of it is other and beyond us. In these moments I think we find it easier to appreciate the work. We value our unmediated response when we make the work. We might value it when we reconsider the work. Seeing something for the first time with fresh eyes is a great challenge. Seeing something again with fresh eyes is an even greater challenge. Maybe this is one reason we need to share the work, so we can see it through other eyes. We need feedback. We find it in the affirmation or the constructive criticism of a colleague or a mentor. Through others we see the world and ourselves with fresh eyes.

SK Have you had that, a mentor, someone you routinely go to?

JPC I've learned that you can learn from everyone. I learn from my students. I have the kind of conversations we're having now, often. And I just love them. They offer the possibility for a very deep communication. The resonance reinforces things in me. That someone sees the same things both similarly and differently is fascinating and refreshing. It brings a new clarity to my perception. You and I reflected on the relationship between images and texts. The questions you ask bring me new insights. Jerry Uelsmann and I agreed that the 'surreal' impulse has been with us far longer than a short artistic movement in this century. We both value the unexpected. Kenro Izu spoke about photographing the atmosphere of a place. He meant more than air. Christopher Burkett and I find space for contemplation and meditation in nature. We both feel nature is a sacred temple. Richard Misrach and I shared a fascination with the desert and the night. We both like to see things from many points of view. Chris Rainier and I find inspiration in perspectives offered by other cultures. Joyce Tenneson spoke of finding intimacy with herself and with others, in and through work. We value relationships. Barbara Bordick said she liked to photograph the nude the way she'd like to be touched. I've always felt that looking at something is a very sensuous experience. The gaze is a touch. She said the same thing in another way that really hit home for me. There are so many others. We see things differently and similarly. We all make different pictures. We share our passions. How wonderful!

Sean Kernan is the author, with Jorge Luis Borges, of The Secret Books, and his work was published in the recent exhibition and book, Innovation/Imagination: 50 Years of Polaroid Photography. He writes periodically for Communication Arts. See more of his work and writings on his award-winning web page,