Over a forty-year career, Paul Caponigro has produced several bodies of work each of which would qualify a photographer for greatness. With an approach that balances mysticism with impeccable technique, his prints resonate at more than one level in your mind, and feel like precious objects in your hand. Jim Kasson interviewed Paul in Monterey, California.
JK: We’re rolling.
PC: Do I have to behave?
JK: No, just be yourself.
PC: You’ll be sorry.
JK: You had a long time away from photography.
PC: The150th birthday of photography was 1989 and I was invited to Europe for exhibitions, lectures, and workshops. I was there for five straight months. I came back in 1990 with my tongue hanging out. I needed a real rest. I rented a house at Garrapata Beach and walked the beach. Within a month I fell off a deck into rocks and bashed myself up and simultaneously rolled in poison oak. The poison oak became systemic and the combination nearly killed me. The experience was a life-changing event, and caused me to rethink how I was living. I moved to Maine in 1992 and spent the next six years cleaning up my life as well as grappling with new problems that kept me from photographing at all. 1993 was my last trip to Ireland to photograph stones and ancient churches. I came back at the end of 1993 and I did not photograph for six years. I never even had a camera in my hands.
JK: Did you print?
PC: I printed old negatives.
JK: And now you’re back.
PC: In 1999 all the noise seemed to stop. I asked myself, “What do I want to do?” I wanted to play with my camera, but my knees wouldn’t allow me to bounce around in the landscape any more. I thought, “All those stones and plants around the house, pull them out and start looking at them.” So I started doing still lifes. From 1999 to this day.
JK: And you’ve got an exhibition going now.
PC: Yes. Last year I made another big thrust and created a body of work that is now on exhibit at the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe.
JK: You started as a photographer for the army?
PC: When I was in Boston, I had a job printing in a photography house but weekends I used to go out and shoot with a 3 1/4x 4 1/4 Speed Graphic. I put it on a tripod and looked through the ground glass. That camera came with me when the army got hold of me in 1953 and I came to the West Coast. I was a photographer for the U.S. Army at the Presidio in San Francisco.
JK: Had you heard of East Coast photographers? Steichen, Stieglitz, Strand…
PC: No, I knew none of that then. I was a rotten student in school. I didn’t like it and couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so I could get out of school and run to nature. The ocean was close by, the woods were nearby. Eventually I realized, “Hey, you like this stuff so much. You’re in it all the time. Get a camera and take it back with you.” That’s how I started photographing.
JK: But on the West Coast, you met many photographers.
PC: It started with Benny Chen, who lived in Chinatown, and who had studied with Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Dorothea Lange. Ansel had started teaching photography at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Minor was his assistant. Benny was one of their first students, in the mid-forties. That’s when Minor started Aperture Magazine. Benny was in touch with Brett Weston, Oliver Gagliani -- all those West Coast boys. I was studying with him while I was still in the army. Benny said, “We’ve got to go to a party this weekend. A bunch of photographers are going to get together. God knows what they’re going to talk about but, wear your civilian clothes and we’ll go to a party.” He didn’t tell me where we were going, and we wound up at Ansel’s home and studio. I walked into his studio and looked around and saw these magnificent photographs on the wall and Benny started introducing me: “This is Minor White. This is Ansel Adams. This is Dorothea Lange. This is Imogen Cunningham.” They said, “Who are you? Where are you from? These pictures are good.” I said, “I’m from Boston.” They said, “Nobody photographs like that in Boston. This is West Coast stuff. You’re a West Coast photographer displaced. All you need is a little technique.” So Benny took me under his wing and taught me how to use a densitometer. He demystified the Zone system. I did about a year in San Francisco.
JK: Then where?
PC: A sergeant at the Presidio didn’t like me. He shipped me out. “Go to hell.” Hell was Yuma, Arizona. I would check out a jeep from the motor pool and head off into the desert and photograph the landscape. I was on my own and had a chance to digest what I had learned in San Francisco. In 1955 I went back home to Boston and spent about a year working with my dad who owned a furniture and floor covering company and continued with my photography. I got enough money to take the bus back to San Francisco so I could be in the proximity of the West Coast boys. I got to know them better. That year was useful to focus my attention on what I was really photographing, but the photographic atmosphere was too thick for me, so I went back to Boston. I really wanted to hang out with Minor White because he pulled away from the usual grand landscape and started thinking more psychologically. He was more internal. I called him. He said, “I think I remember you. Why don’t you come to Rochester and hang out for awhile?”
JK: He was at Eastman House then?
PC: He was one of the curators at Eastman House and also was teaching at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His house, studio, and darkroom were at 72 North Union Street, just around the corner from the George Eastman Museum. He had a group of students in almost every day. We’d look at each others’ pictures. Good music all the time. A real creative photography working environment. He allowed me to stay there for three months. There were always professors coming through and other photographers and they’d wind up at Minor’s place. I met Beaumont and Nancy Newhall then. In 1958 and 1959 I worked on my own on the New England coastline. Then Minor called me in 1959 and said, “I need somebody to help me teach some workshops on the West Coast. Let’s spend the summer driving to the Coast, photographing along the way. We’ll camp out and then we’ll teach the workshops on the Coast and wind up at Ansel’s place in San Francisco and drink his whiskey.” It was a fabulous summer. I got my first exhibition through Minor in 1959 at the George Eastman House.
JK: That’s a great place to have a first exhibition. What body of work was that?
PC: Mostly the stuff that we photographed together from the cross-country trip, or on the coast. These weren’t just the grand landscape. Minor had a way of working with the landscape where he would inject his more psychological thinking. Things always had a meaning for him. Minor had a way of getting the student to sit still long enough to realize that there was something happening on that piece of silver paper. That somebody put it there and that “something” could reveal its thumbprint. Minor was wonderful at getting students to look a little deeper. I was already a rather introspective type so it suited me just fine. I didn’t want to go through the Zen channel with him but nonetheless I worked harmoniously with him.
JK: But you needed to make a living.
PC: In 1960, I decided that the easiest way would be to do architectural photography. It’s a nice craftsman-like job, and you don’t have to listen to an art director. So I did that for a couple of years in Boston. Ansel was coming once a year to work with Dr. Land of the Polaroid Corporation, helping him and his head researcher to develop 4x5 professional print materials. Ansel introduced me to the people at Polaroid, and they offered me a job. I would just report in to get materials from them and they’d let me photograph anything I wanted. All they wanted to know was that the materials weren’t malfunctioning, and if I had any comments or feelings about improving them.
JK: Did the new materials change the way you photographed?
PC: The uniqueness of the material allowed me to branch out a bit from the way I was seeing the landscape. More work with close details. The tones read so beautifully. It lent itself so well to these little gems and so I think I went more for close details. The 4x5 print materials were fantastic; they are the most gorgeous prints I have in my collection, and Type 55 P/N offered a good negative.
JK: You’re not a big fan of the Zone System.
PC: For my way of working I don’t need all that much technique. In fact, it got too fancy. I used it because it was there and it didn’t always serve the seeing and the image making.
JK: And it uses the analytical part of your brain, not the part that you use in making pictures.
PC: The Zone System is best for a course in sensitometry. I found that too much of the intellectual aspect was disruptive to the feeling activity. Images are made from the heart. You have to be pretty quiet in the brain to apprehend what the emotions are finding. You partly see it with your eyes; mostly you see it with your heart. You have to sense that and keep that alive.
JK: Sounds like a meditative state.
PC: It’s meditation in action. Minor wanted me to sit in a corner to meditate, but my meditation was directly with my reaction to the land. And at a certain point after I started teaching workshops I realized that, although the Zone System is great up to a point, then it begins to interfere: too much technique, too much equipment. In order to previsualize, you must live in a test tube. You are locked into a way of seeing and thinking. I just use the absolute essential basics: expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights and then there are enough materials and papers to take it from there. My seeing’s no good unless the eye and the center of the heart join what the eyes are taking in. So I invented the three-dimensional Zone System.
JK: Tell me about that.
PC: At one point I took it upon myself to really work through the Zone System; I got six different emulsions, four different developers, a densitometer, some good thermometers. I did that for a few months during which time I began to realize I was just stacking tones one on top of the other. That’s two dimensional. This little voice crept into my head. It said, “Three-dimensional zone system.” I thought, “What the hell does that mean?” I went back to work and I was haunted by that thought. And while doing my work it hit: add emotion to the process.
JK: You use a variety of materials and processes.
PC: No one paper and one developer, no matter how well mastered, is going to serve the voice of my negatives. I need to have a little extra print color for this negative. I need a little extra toning for that one. I need to be more like a painter who has a palette that he can play with. I want to be able to mix developers and emulsions and filters. I want to be able to have them at my command. I want to move away from just cold tone paper and cold developer for a neutral image. I want to print this negative really silvery; for that I need glycin in the developer. I hate that green that Dektol implants, and if you tone with selenium too much it’ll get rid of the green but it changes the contrast. I’m always looking for my medium to breathe.
JK: I took a printing workshop from you in the early 90s where you emphasized a two-way communication with your materials.
PC: There’s a voice of the print. You can hear it if you come at it in the right way rather than thinking, “Well, I know about a good print. It’s got to have a perfect black and a perfect white.” These negatives have a voice of their own and I have to divine what is really going to render what’s in there. If the individual gives a certain kind of attention to his materials, they will teach. They’re not superficial, inanimate objects that you push around; they have a voice. If you can see it that way, they will show you things.
JK: Do you think about how you’re going to print it before you expose film?
PC: Never. What I do is favor the light that is available for the subject. With a lot of experience, you begin to know what a silver print might look like for that particular subject and range of values. You learn over time to kind of discount the color and you close one eye to get the two dimensional effect. You pick up a way of seeing what the print might look like. But it’s never exact. It’s all on an emotional level, really, and be glad if you can keep it on that level. You bring that emotional tone into the darkroom when you’re going to print that negative and search out the paper that will give you that feeling.
JK: Do you live with work prints before you decide how you’re finally going to print something?
PC: I don’t bother with work prints, I just go straight to work and play. I make myself happy in the darkroom by communing with my friends, these new negatives, a box of fresh paper, and some chemicals. By noon I might have arrived at a workable print. Then I go to lunch, have a cup of coffee, and take a breather. I come back and say, “Oops. We have to do this, rather than that.”
JK: Tell me about the Irish work.
PC: I got a Guggenheim grant in 1966, and went to Ireland. At first I photographed Celtic crosses and ancient stone churches but once I discovered the megaliths, the prehistoric stones, the churches and crosses took a back seat. I couldn’t help but photograph the landscape of Ireland while I was searching for these stones but the stones were the primary focus. In 1966 and 1967 I was chasing prehistoric stones all over the British Isles and down into France. That resulted in a book called Megaliths--The Great Stones. I did the stones from about 1966 through 1972. It was a pretty concentrated effort. It slowed down after that. I went back every year for about a period of fifteen years to work on those stones or to complete a book on them. Then I got interested in the high crosses and the churches where the Celtic Druid influence and Christianity met head-on.
JK: Do you find Ireland to have thin places, places where there’s not much distance between the spiritual and the material worlds?
PC: You mean where the veil lifts? My reason for being there was to ferret out those places. I’m Italian, but when I hit Ireland I thought, “I’m home.” The Celtic myths of fairy lore drew me closer to lifting the veil of their worlds.
JK: Did they ever give you something to photograph?
PC: How about the running white deer?
JK: The deer were a present?
PC: Who do you think made that, me? No. They led me there. They set it up. The queen fairy said, “You go over there and hang out. You’ll see something.”
JK: Is there just the one negative?
PC: Yes. And a difficult negative at that. Thirty-inch bellows extension in order to hide in the trees so the animals wouldn’t see me, wide-open and a long exposure. I used an Irish sheepdog. I got the owner to get the dog to corral a few dozen of the deer down at the far end of the field and on my signal get him to chase them in my direction. I had my camera set. I had my shutter cocked, slide out and I gave him a signal. The dog went after them and this one deer took the lead and I thought, “Oh, I don’t believe this. They’re all following that one to form a clear line of running beasts.”
JK: Did you know what you had?
PC: Right after I tripped the shutter, two white swans flew directly over my head. I thought, “I’m going to put the holder under my armpit until I get home. There’s something special on this film.” I had high hopes, but I was still surprised when I saw the developed negative.
JK: You’ve done a lot of teaching.
PC: I needed money when I got back from Ireland. I came back to the States because the money ran out and New York University offered me a job to teach still photography to their graduate film makers. That job lasted for maybe three or four semesters over two years.
JK: Where were you living then?
PC: Connecticut. That’s where I did the Redding Woods series. I had no desire to live in New York City. I did that once and I hated it. I taught for NYU for a couple of years and during that time I was also doing workshops on the side for Princeton, University of Connecticut, and Yale. They were all pretty close to where I was in Connecticut and they all offered me positions to come in and set up a department. Even Harvard offered me a position, but I decided to remain a photographer; academics never interested me.
JK: You didn’t like it when you were on the other end of academic teaching. You probably wouldn’t like it on either end.
PC: Exactly. I have to stay with the heart factor. Then in 1972 Edward Ranney, a young photographer came to visit. He said, “You know, we’re leaving our home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Great little place. I built a darkroom.” We were thinking about moving and didn’t really know where we wanted to go. He said, “The darkroom’s already built. I’ll just sell it to you and I’ll put in a word to the landlady.” I said, “Do it.” All of us were delighted to pick up from Connecticut and move to Santa Fe.
JK: Big change.
PC: I was very comfortable with the desert because I had that one year in Arizona during the army. I enjoyed every bit of that wide open space and that gorgeous silence that spoke so eloquently.
JK: Was there a photographic community in Santa Fe when you moved there?
PC: Ansel photographed Taos, and Paul Strand photographed there, and Georgia was married to Stieglitz.
JK: Yes, but that was all gone by the time you moved there.
PC: It was gone but everybody was aware of it, and a lot of younger photographers came in. It was a hotspot, very much like this area. Alan Ross moved to Santa Fe and he’s still there. Elliott Porter was there. We stayed in Santa Fe for 15 years although I always did have trouble with the altitude. I would spend six months in Santa Fe, three months here along the coast, and three months in Maine teaching photo workshops.
JK: Tell me about your publications, both historically and recently.
PC: While I was in Ireland in 1966, Minor asked me to do a monograph for Aperture. It had a combination of the New England images, a few from the trip we made in 1959 and some of the Irish work. The next one was in 1974: a book called Landscape. It had more variety, including some southwest landscapes. The next one was a catalog called Twenty-five Years. A private gallery in La Jolla put it out. Then George Eastman House did a retrospective of my work. In 1982 New York Graphics Society and I finally agreed on a way to publish a book of the work. It was called The Wise Silence: In 1984, the Megaliths book was published.
JK: The Wise Silence was very successful.
PC: Yeah. Hard to find a copy these days. A lot of people think it ought to be reprinted. Both those shows were picked up by the United States Information Agency and shown extensively throughout Europe.
JK: Which of your books are still in print?
PC: New England Days, a catalog from an exhibition from the Portland Museum of Art was published in 1999 or 2000. The museum called and said, “Here you are in New England and we are developing our museum and we want a show of your works since you are New England born.” That book is quite lovely.
JK: What’s it like to have a son who’s a photographer?
PC: It’s fun. He hung around the darkroom, and I showed him some things. I took him on two photographic trips to Europe. He used the view camera and he had his own 35, which he preferred. He made some beautiful interior cathedral photographs, but every time he was in the darkroom he’d say, “Dad, I can’t deal with these chemicals. They just make me sneeze.” So he left the darkroom but he continued photographing. Then the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, Maine gave him a grant.
JK: John Sculley and Kodak set that up to evangelize digital photography.
PC: Exactly. John got his introduction to digital imaging, and he just went with it. He said, “Dad, this is it. This is what I want to do.” He’s a very good artist. He has a wonderful eye. He has a good sense of color. He used to be a painter so he’s brought all of that to the digital world. He’s become a teacher as well.
JK: It wasn’t your ambition to start a dynasty like Edward Weston?
PC: I never forced anything on him. Anything he wanted to know, I was there for him and he picked up a lot of information but he had his own way. When he saw a Jerry Uelsmann catalog he said, “What’s this, Dad? How does he do that? I like this stuff.” I said, “Next time Jerry comes up this way, I’ll introduce you.” And compositing images is part of his digital work.
JK: Is it important for you to be around photographers every so often? Do you feel isolated when you’re in Maine for extended periods of time?
PC: No. I’ve always been a loner. I enjoy any encounters with students and other photographers but I don’t seek it out. In the last two to three years, I’ve desired and required even more solitary time.
JK: Where are you represented?
PC: I’m not represented anywhere. Five years ago I gave up the business of consigning and having two dozen galleries around the country. A few galleries purchase my work and resell it. I get a lot of activity from Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe, and some from the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, and the Bellows Gallery in La Jolla.
JK: You have been a musician all your life?
PC: I’ve aspired to be a musician all my life. I got my first piano at thirteen. I played the piano and made pictures all through high school. Then Dad said, “What are you going to do with your life?” I said, “I really want to be a pianist.” I didn’t want to go to school, but I enrolled at Boston University and by great fortune, during the one semester that I spent there before I quit and took a job as a printer in a photography house, I met a fabulous piano teacher, Alfredo Fondacaro.
JK: When you play the piano, do you feel it’s a two-way communication with the instrument the same way that you and the materials communicate in the darkroom?
PC: That was one of the great things that this teacher taught me. He made me listen to everything. He said, “When you put that finger down, put it down with the wrist and put it down with the arm, and then just the finger. Listen carefully to the difference.”
JK: Does it go further than that? Are there emotional parallels between making music and photographs?
PC: I’m trying to make sound out of my silver prints and light with the tones at the piano. I’m trying to pull the dimensions of sound and light into the process of both making prints and making music. It demands an active emotional system, but not just any emotion. No sentimentality. No excessive drama. Pure emotion is like a field that hovers within you and that informs you. You see through the heart.