John Paul Caponigro's life's work is dedicated to inspiring conscientious creative interaction with our environment. We talked with him about his latest series, Revelation, and the importance of vision in any creative endeavour.
As the son of a famous photographer, what was the biggest struggle you encountered in finding your own vision?
While finding my own vision, being the son of two successful artists didn’t create struggles that were any different from other artists, in part because both of my parents are respectful, sensitive, and supportive. We all have to manage our influences well. The biggest challenge for any of us is to find our own voices and the courage to pursue them. I was encouraged to do that. I was exposed to many different ways to do that. And then I had to do it.
How have your skills as a former painter helped in your transition into photography?
My images occupy a curious new space between painting and photography. My painting skills have shaped the kind of visual artist I’ve become. My experience with painting has helped broaden and deepen my understanding of the processes of making images, including visualization, composition, color, retouching, and art history, to name a few. Initially my painting skills kept me out of photography. As a boy I spent a majority of my time drawing and painting. During my college years, I seriously explored making straight photographs; I was particularly interested in how photographs of the literal world could become so abstract and how two people using the same tools and materials could make such different images of the same things at the same time. My first exhibit was a group show with my father, George Tice, and Eliot Porter. I continue to exhibit “straight” photographs today, usually side by side with my “altered" photographs. But, photography alone wasn’t enough for me. With photography, I couldn’t fully realize the images that were in my mind’s eye, as I could with paint. I often used photographs as reference, though I was interested that Jerry Uelsmann seemed to be able to do this with eight enlargers. I was also interested in the cinematic arts. Then Photoshop was born. For me, Photoshop created a space where many different sensibilities could cross-pollinate one another; I was hooked! And I still am. I love what Photoshop does to my brain! Digital technology enabled me to use photography as an integral part of my primary way of making images. I still make studies with other many other media, but the majority of my finished images incorporate photography.
With all the talk about what makes a “true” photograph, what are your thoughts on using Photoshop or other digital tools to merge your vision into your final image?
My recommendation for myself and other artists is to follow your vision first and use the tools and techniques that empower and deepen that vision. Make images that are authentic to you and do that well, whatever that is. Use any tool and technique that helps you do what you need to do as well as you can do it. Later, make useful observations about what happened. Repeat.
I know where you’re going with this question because so many of us have been taken there so many times. Including the term “‘true’ photograph” in this question throws us off track instantly, as it does for so many others so frequently. It’s mostly likely that you're referring to the factual value ascribed to documentary photography and that many people think that it’s not acceptable to practice photography in a way that challenges that and at the same time they’re often unwilling to acknowledge how much seemingly “straight” photography distorts and can sometimes be used to mislead. This is a terribly limiting point of view, not just for the medium, but also for so many human spirits who long for a vehicle to explore their authentic personal expression. In fact, there is a long, rich history for many other kinds of photography. There are many genres of photography (documentary, forensic, fashion, propaganda, surreal, abstract, etc.) made in many ways (paper neg, glass plate, film, digital capture, collage, montage, transfer, projection, etc.). We typically only use one word for all of these many different types of photographs. Writers have so many words for the many different kinds and ways of writing that their philosophical discussions don’t get led astray by semantics as easily. Can you imagine a writer being taken to task for writing fiction? Visual artists might do well to borrow some of the language writers use. As a global culture, we need to use better language that will help us to clarify our thinking, open up new possibilities, and have better conversations.
Photography is a tool that is placed in the service of many different visions. The primary question isn’t “Is it acceptable to use photography in certain ways?”; rather, it is "What is the artist trying to do and how well did they do that?” This question opens up a much richer dialog placing the emphasis first on vision and second on technique as a vehicle for supporting vision, not the other way around. I realize this is a harder question to answer, but the responses are so much more interesting.
How did you visualize the images before you created them? Do you sketch or draw what you want to photograph?
This is an important question for all of us to ask ourselves—and to keep asking it. I try as many approaches as possible. Draw before arriving at a location. Draw on location. Draw after visiting a location, from my mind and from photographs. Look at photographs (my own and others). Make photographs—some with one exposure and some with many exposures. I study the creative process conceptually and practically. My mindset changes when I do different things. When my mindset changes I see and feel and think different things. So a burning question for me is, knowing that I have so many options and that what I do will change my mindset and thus the what I create, how and why I choose what I do in a given moment. More often than not, I make this decision intuitively; I “go with my gut” after having practiced a lot, thought a lot, felt a lot, I finally let all of that fall back into my subconscious and try to be as present to the current moment, which includes myself, as I possibly can be.
When you’re on scene, what are you looking for? Do you envision the final image, or do you find the end result presents itself in post-production?
Inspiration, that magic spark that makes become truly alive, can present itself at any point in the creative process: during visualization, during exposure, during editing and sequencing, during post-processing, and during presentation. It’s important to be alive to all of the different stages in the creative process and to be aware of how they influence one another. They each have something to offer and teach us. At any point in the process, I’m hoping to be surprised.
The photographs featured in this post are from your most recent work from Antarctica and Greenland, and are a departure from anything else you’ve recently done. What was your inspiration for this series?
My most recent images from my series Revelation mark a return to forms that I began exploring over 20 years ago with many related images using exposures from other deserts. (There are strong parallels to this sensibility in many of the series I have developed since then: Exhalation, Inhalation, Resonance, Suffusion). This sensibility was inspired by my early childhood and continuing encounters with the sacred arts of “primitive” or “primal” cultures, including sculptures, costumes, and other ceremonial objects. The process of creating these images is like dreaming while I’m awake. My images are a form of environmental art in virtual space. These altered images are land art produced without altering the land. You can read more about this series on my website.
Which of the photographs in this post is your favourite and why? Walk us through the processing of that image in this series, from beginning to end.
This is another great question. I ask myself this question every time I create a new set of images. Answering it helps me select, process, and sequence existing and future images.
Revelation XXIV (below) is an important image for me; I saw it in my mind’s eye before exposure, and I had a clear idea of what it would become when I made it. This isn’t always the case and it doesn’t guarantee better results, though it does help ensure I have the exposures I need. I made the exposure while cruising Antarctica’s Pleneau Bay (nicknamed the “iceberg graveyard”) in a Zodiac - about ISO 400, 1/200th of second, at f/8 with a Canon 1DSR and a 16-35mm lens. Of the eight times I’ve visited this location, only two had conditions that were calm enough to create cohesive reflections in the water; Antarctica is the windiest continent. Most of the color adjustment is done in Lightroom. The composite is done in Photoshop. A new figure is created by copying the base smart object, masking the layer to show only the iceberg, rotating it, duplicating it, flipping the second copy, and finally masking the new combined figure to make it appear that it rests behind the original iceberg. The final image is a composite that uses only one exposure. That’s the how.
But the why is an entirely different matter. The symmetrical figure created from the iceberg has a strong, very direct—not confrontational—but assertive presence that I admire. It’s as if the landscape woke up and raised itself to look at you. It’s this deeply felt spiritual presence in the natural world that I’m interested in connecting with and participating in—and making pictures is one way for me to do this.
John Paul Caponigro is an internationally renowned fine artist, and the author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution. His clients include Adobe, Apple, Canon, and Epson. Learn more by visiting JohnPaulCaponigro.com and get hundreds of free lessons with a subscription to his newsletter, Insights.