“A retrospective exhibition by one of the world’s most significant master photographers still working today.”
I went to see the retrospective of photographer Paul Caponigro at the Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My drive down to the gallery took less time than anticipated. This turned out to provide plenty of quiet time to view Paul’s work before the crowds arrived. The nearly 50 black and white prints on display covered his work from the late 1950s through the early 2000s. The iconic Running White Deer, Galaxy Apple, Reflective Stream, Roadway, Stonehenge, and a couple of his Sunflowers were among the photographs.
I slowly walked along each wall of perfectly framed photographs pausing at each. I do not normally do this but these photographs were compelling. Paul Caponigro is perhaps the last living photographer from the lineage of master landscape (non-people) photographers, which includes Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Minor White among others. For me the experience of viewing these photographs that hung just inches from my eyes was on the order of a religious experience, one that humbled me right down to a very quiet reverence of what I was seeing before me.
Being the only one in the gallery provided a museum quality experience where I had all the time I wanted to look and explore the details of the actual print without being interrupted. Soon I began to notice phases of Paul’s photographs and group them into three distinct periods.
His early work between the late 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s is characterized by close studies of form, light and texture. I believe these images are his most spiritually pure photographs. They show his innocent fascination in exploring the subject before his eyes. The subject is often isolated to its essential texture and provides a landscape of shapes and light. Rock Wall, Fungus, Pear, and each of his Sunflowers images are examples of this period. The Galaxy Apple also belongs in this period but it achieves an even grander stature because the simple red apple when photographed in black and white transforms it into an image of a star filled galaxy.
The photographs that were made in the 1970s and 80s, in general, show a wider expanse of space. Paul pulled back his view from being focused on the details of an object or a singular pattern, as with Reflecting Stream, or the iconic Roadway, to include much more of the scene. The viewer now sees a more typical landscape. He has a few of these wider view images in his earlier works, but the photographs representing this period in the exhibition are more landscape based.
The third period began around the turn of the century when he started to photographs still lifes. Two Pears, Fruit Platter, and October Harvest are examples of this period. They are crafted with the same skill of attention to details and simplicity as his earliest works. I liked these still lifes for the quality of light they have.
There is one exception to the time periods that I saw. In 2012, Paul photographed a turtle on its back that created a star shaped figure against the dark forest ground. The photograph is titled, Snapping Turtle. He was in his 80s and perhaps like us all, returned to the essence of his younger days when he began photographing.
Paul Caponigro has a huge body of photographs, all of which are unique to the time at which they were created. Beyond Paul’s classic photographs, there are some which I had never seen that I found interesting. Leaf on Wet Screen, from a distance this photograph looks like a snowy night with an oak leaf on the ground. As I got closer to the print more details began to emerge. A grid of lines appeared. I then had to shift my perspective to see that the photograph was actually looking at a screen, a screened window, a screened door, you cannot tell. What once looked like falling snow, now were water drops trapped by the wire grid of the screen. The screen’s grid made the photograph look like some sort of digital pattern of ones and zeros, which was unexpected. Frosted Window was another one I had not seen and liked very much. It fits along the lines of Galaxy Apple in that it looks like a night sky until you get close enough to where the crystallized water emerges to reveal an even more delicate image of frost.
I had the opportunity to chat with Paul. From my view I was chatting with someone I felt I knew via his photographs and having helped print some of his Cibachrome prints in the 80s, but the reality was that he was talking to a complete stranger. How should he behave? From what perspective should he have of me? I brought up his Reflecting Stream and he began to mention the concept and meaning of the image he had in mind when he made the photograph, but I was not buying it and I think he knew it when I saw a very faint smile from him. I then mentioned another New England artist, well, actually a poet, Robert Frost. I quoted Frost’s best line about his poetry; “They begin in delight and end in wisdom.” I got a favorable reaction from Paul and we both agree that it is the innocent exploration of our environment that yields some of the best photographic images, and it is after the fact that we begin to realize what was captured.
I wished I could have had more time talking with Paul about photography, but it was not the time or place. I left the exhibition before the gallery filled up with others, and drove back to Denver. As I watched the Wolf Moon rise above the horizon, I felt pleased to have seen such a body of work by a photographer that I had admired since the late 1970s and the fact that I met him. The six hour drive provided me with much time to reflect. When I woke the next day, I began to write this summary.
The Owner and Director of the Obscura Gallery, Jennifer Schlesinger has put together a wonderful retrospective of Paul Caponigro’s photography. If you are in the Santa Fe area, or within driving distance, it will be well worth your time to visit the exhibition, but do so before February 29, 2020 when it ends.