Famous for the unique meditative quality of his work, Paul Caponigro once said, “Photography is a medium, a language, through which I might come to experience directly, live more closely with, the interaction between myself and nature,” (“Paul Caponigro”). These roots in nature have been with Caponigro since his birth in Boston in 1932. He became interested in photography at age 13 as he realized that he much preferred to be outdoors than in the classroom, saying to himself, “Hey, you like this stuff so much… Get a camera and take it back with you,” (Caponigro).
Caponigro had an equally strong passion for music as a young boy and began to study music at Boston University in 1950 before deciding to study photography at the California School of Fine Art (“Paul Caponigro”). In 1953, Caponigro traveled to the western United States as a soldier en route to San Francisco during the Korean War and took photographs for the army.
Though he was an east coast man by birth, his experience in California and the southwest would turn out to greatly shape his highly individual vision in photography (Kay).
After leaving the army, Caponigro began to study with Benny Chen in California, who had studied under such photographers as Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Dorothea Lange. Chen introduced Caponigro to many of these photographers, eventually leading to Caponigro’s study under Minor White during the 1950s and 60s (Caponigro). During this time, Caponigro photographed the west coast, published images in the newly created Aperture magazine, and had his first exhibition at George Eastman’s House (Kay).
Caponigro describes how he learned to think more psychologically while studying with White: “Minor was wonderful at getting students to look a little deeper. I was already a rather introspective type so it suited me just fine,” (Caponigro). Finally, in 1966, Caponigro was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, allowing him to pursue his lifelong dream of traveling to Ireland to photograph megalithic sites (Kay). After his grant money ran out, he returned to the States and taught at New York University from 1968 to 1969; it is during this time that he photographed the classic Redding Woods series while living in Connecticut. He then moved to New Mexico in the 1970s, resuming photography of the western US. A few decades later, he returned to his roots in New England, and currently lives in Maine (Kay). Caponigro has received three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts over his lifetime and was most recently awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 2001.
Overall, Caponigro’s style of photography seeks inspiration in nature and natural forms, echoing the exceedingly metaphysical/metaphorical tradition of Minor White (Kay). His subject matter customarily focuses on landscapes, but in his later years, he has produced wonderful still-life images as well (“Paul Caponigro”). It is clear in his diverse array of photographs that he recognizes a deeper meaning through each image he creates. Caponigro differs from many other landscape photographers in that he prefers to approach nature receptively with an intuitive focus rather than merely arranging objects in a scene in a more inorganic form (“Photographer Biography: Paul Caponigro”). However, his composition is still direct. In addition, instead of focusing purely on blacks and whites, he has a particularly heightened sensitivity toward gray tonalities; this has allowed him to produce exquisite prints with a superb quality that is unrivaled.
His high attention to close details which is characteristic of his work was enabled by his early collaboration with Polaroid testing their photography materials for imaging and development (Caponigro). As he learned the technical skills of film photography, however, he realized the value in using slightly different materials and processes for each photograph, and as such is relatively artistic in the development of his images compared to many others (Caponigro). Above all else, however, Caponigro has an extremely spiritual connection with the process of photography, a connection that is reflected in his photographs. His meditation, directly with his reaction to the land, is infused into each image, adopting a somewhat mystical quality (Caponigro; “Paul Caponigro”). In addition, Caponigro is a dedicated musician and considers music essential to photographic imagery. He frequently describes the most important lesson he learned from his piano teacher as a young boy – “… that the effort, diligence, and care required in practicing must be quickly suspended when pressure coming from anxiety or a desire for fast results causes them to degenerate,” – and how this lesson is carried throughout his life’s work (“Paul Caponigro”).
Of all Paul Caponigro’s spectacular collections, of particular interest in his Redding Woods series mentioned previously is one of his beautifully introspective photographs entitled “Woods, Redding, Conn.” This photograph was taken in 1968 and is a beautiful gelatin silver print on paper. It is a large format, with a long exposure of a smooth river reflecting trees above in a forest, serving as a classic example of Caponigro’s inspiration in natural forms as well as the symbolism and mysticism typical of his work. As mentioned, this photograph was taken just after Caponigro returned from Ireland after he used all of his Guggenheim grant money. He taught in New York City to further fund his projects; because of this, his Redding Woods series partly caters to an audience that would simply buy the photographs. Caponigro has admitted in later interviews that he hated working in the city, however, and so this image also reflects his origins as a nature lover and ability to seek a more psychological, deeper meaning in not only nature but also his images in general. In this way, the collection from which this image originates served as a temporary refuge for Caponigro from an otherwise despised city life, targeting those who could appreciate the decidedly transcendent nature of his work.
Although Caponigro lived in a post-modernist time which dissolved the customary boundaries between art, architecture, popular culture, and mass media and emphasized borrowing ideas from past and present, “Woods, Redding, Conn.” is a traditional example of beautiful modernist photography (“Post Modern Photography: Idea Before Image”). Modernism arose in the first two decades of the twentieth century, rejecting its predecessor, pictorialism, which featured artistic manipulations, soft focus, and painterly quality. Instead, modernism commends direct, unadulterated images of contemporary life. Its focus is typically sharp with an emphasis on formal qualities, exploiting the camera as “an essentially mechanical and technological tool,” instead of obscuring this fact (Gsekulovski). In addition, clean lines, repetition of form, and viewpoint are all emphasized in modernist images, holding the observation of the subject as equally important as the subject itself. Though Caponigro’s photography was highly metaphorical, a feature of both modernist and post-modernist photography, “Woods, Redding, Conn.” is symbolic in a modernist way in that the image has a raw, organic, direct quality, sporting clean lines and repetition of forms commonly seen in modernist works. The composition is mindful and careful, also making evident the importance of viewpoint distinctive of modernist photography. In addition, the framing crops into a larger spatial and temporal context by including the foggy forest on the riverbank and a great depth of field, giving a sense of movement and time, and is extremely structured. This photograph also relates to many images shown in class, such as those of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange – both did work in nature, with strong modernist influences and sharp focus.
Whenever I choose an image, whether it is to study more closely or simply hang it on my wall, I choose images that take my breath away. From the moment I first laid eyes on it, this image did just that. Just like Caponigro, I was raised while living in the woods and was taught by my parents that relishing in nature can be an exceptionally spiritual, pensive experience. As such, I began as a landscape photographer, especially because I love to travel to national parks and places with mountains. This image spoke to a meditative mindset with beautiful tonalities, organic symmetry, and a smooth, mystical impression, creating a type of work I would like to pursue but could only aspire to produce as expertly as Caponigro. Pure and uncontroversial, I was drawn to the depth of the image created by Caponigro’s close attention to working through greys, as well as his composition by allowing the river to recede into mysterious darkness in the center of the image. The brightness of the image is centered, yet there are subtle visual interests – branching trees, darkness – placed in third. This creates an image that is peaceful but still has a certain sense of movement, forcing the eye to move first to the center of brightness, out to the natural forms of the trees in the river’s reflection, then upwards around the dark edges, and finally back into the receding shadows. The image displays a superb, very structured composition created by a juxtaposing and inexplicably pleasing presentation of organic forms. The light is intensely emotional and carefully considered, also giving the image a certain power to which I am drawn. “Woods, Redding, Conn.” displays Caponigro’s vested interest in studying the overall intersection of reality, and mystique, and uncovering the “veil” that hides that mystery from reality, depicting his typical subject – nature – and maintaining a highly psychological quality. The lines are simple, the details are fine, and the emotion is deep, characteristics that can be seen in all of his images. All of these features come together to create a truly peaceful and beautiful image to not just see, but also experience fully, providing a truly pleasurable experience for the observer amidst the Redding Woods.