Paul Caponigro: The Wise Silence
“Minor White, the American photographer with whom Paul Caponigro studied, endeavored to charge his images with an extra dimension. Although his style and technique were influenced by the ‘f.64’ society – Weston, Adams, and other – White has always insisted that a good photograph should be both rooted in the subject, and at the same time ‘beyond it’. This attitude distinguished him from the ‘f.64’ group, who, as a rule, never claimed to be depicting anything other than ‘straight’ reality.
Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that. Ansel Adams, for example, whose immensely popular landscapes are imbued with traces of the old American frontier spirit and an almost myopic stress on detail, knew perfectly well that a camera lens, when used with a tiny aperture (hence the f.64 tag), registers more than the unaided human eye. The effect of this physical phenomenon accounted for the curious, almost hallucinatory precision of his images. What happens, roughly, is as follows: the human eye, when looking at a landscape, scans the scene constantly, moving from foreground to background, from detail to detail, while the lens grasps it all in a single instant. Consequently, when the photographic print is viewed, the eye is able to perceive the landscape in a way which it would not otherwise be able to.
What White, and Caponigro, have done is to acknowledge the psychological implications of that effect, and to exploit them, rather than to secede from the ‘f.64’ technique. This is particularly true of Caponigro’s early work, where he deals mainly with subjects that that have few, if any, human associations. More recently, though, he has chosen to photograph objects and landscapes that are redolent with history, that in a sense already have within them something of the mood he is trying to achieve in his potographs. Dolmens and ancient stones have particularly fascinated him: ‘To me, each placement or ‘gesture’ of stone from the past reflected prehistoric man’s nobility, aspirations or involvement with lofty ideas… My own interest in the stones was less than trying to ascertain their exact use or meaning, than in trying to record in the photographic images the atmosphere and magnetic power of these stone arrangements.’
It is certainly arguable that Caponigro suffers from the old ‘pathetic fallacy’ – whereby an artist projects his own feelings and then claims they stem from the object itself – and, in any case, not all his photographs convey the atmosphere he is striving to capture. Some of his images are simply beautifully printed images of very ordinary subjects. Paradoxically, though, it is their consistent ordinariness that makes Caponigro’s photographs exceptional. The stillness at the heart of his vision, his unwaivering and unblinking gaze, are capable of trans-figuring the most mundane prospect, and when they do, the results are magnificent.
Caponigro’s photographs are discreet and undemanding – at least superficially. Above all, it is his tonal quality that is central to his aesthetics: ‘Fineness of the tonal values in the black and white photographic images, for me, is much more than producing technically excellent prints. I believe it can generate an emotional response in the viewer as readily as any human situation, provided one takes the time to allow it to come through.'”
— John Hutchinson, In Dublin, 21/03/85