“The sound of music and the light of the photograph
are interchangeable when working from the heart.”
Paul Caponigro lives in Cushing, an off-the-beaten-track municipality in Midcoast Maine. Caponigro’s house is compact and inviting, not unlike himself. His handshake is muscular but warmly intimate. His eyes are intense but more engaging than scrutinizing. Caponigro is friendly and philosophical.
As is his home.
His living room is filled with cultural objects, but it is hardly the museum one might expect in light of his associations with Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange and so many other towering photographic talents. Caponigro, after all, is one of the greats of American photography. These were his teachers as well as his peers, but he is very much one of them. Just past the fireplace with its Stonehenge-like mantel, a grand piano piled with sheet music holds court in the far side of the soaring, open main room of the house in the woods. Instead of famed framed photos, the space is filled with Eastern objects and natural artifacts. The only bit of technology in view is an electric typewriter at a small desk stacked with manuscripts and self-typed papers.
In addition to being one of America’s leading photographers, Caponigro, 87, is considered by many to be the country’s greatest living photographic printer. He hails from the generation just behind Adams and the early rounds of American Modernists championed by the likes of Alfred Stieglitz. He is not only on their level, but he is one of the few remaining masters who worked and taught with them. Caponigro’s career, however, has been defined not only by his extraordinary sense of image—he has no shortage of recognizable “hits” and notable pictures—but by his particular abilities in the darkroom.
Caponigro’s voice is deeply resonant, yet soft in person. It’s easy to imagine he could let it swell to fill any classroom. His eyes tell you that the best of his insights are geared to the personal rather than the verbal brocades broadcast to oversized lecture halls filled with students seeking the scrapings of a famous master’s performed pronouncements. He is about presence rather than performance.
Caponigro grew up in the Boston area, where he took an early interest in photography. But he showed great promise as a pianist and entered college as a music student. Caponigro quickly found himself disillusioned with the university model of arts education. Nonetheless, he was able to work with the looming Boston University pianist Alfred Fondacaro. Caponigro recalls:
“For me, music and camera were neck and neck. Somehow, I was accepted into BU’s college of music, but I was not much of a student. The school was too much academics and not enough piano, so I stopped taking classes. But still, I would hang out there in the evenings. Professor Fondacaro looked for a student to give an impromptu lesson. Not finding one, I approached him and asked for lessons. When I explained I had quit the school, he didn’t flinch. ‘Well, that shows some intelligence,’ he said, and agreed to work with me. He brought me to his studio and told me to play. ‘You’re a mess,’ he said, but then offered, ‘I will take you as a student if you stop playing the piano for a year. You have so many bad habits buried in those fingers.’ And then we did one 10-minute lesson a week… It was a fabulous time: I didn’t just learn how to use my fingers; I learned about sound and how to listen.”
Caponigro was drafted in 1953 during the Korean War and assigned to the Army band, which was not a great fit for a classical pianist. Flummoxed about what to do with him, Caponigro’s band commander found him a post as an Army photographer in San Francisco. There he met Benjamen Chinn, a student of Adams, Weston and White at the California School of Fine Arts. Chinn told Caponigro: “You have good potential but your technique is a little soft.” So he taught Caponigro Adams’s now-famous “zone system” and introduced the young photographer to his teachers.
“Benny lived in Chinatown. In his apartment, he has photos by Ansel Adams and [Edward] Weston… I didn’t know who they were and I had never seen anything like it. Soon after that, he takes me to a party. Ansel Adams opens the door and lets us in. Prints are everywhere. Minor White. Ansel Adams. The Weston boys. Dorothea Lange. I am about 19 or 20 and I am introduced to all this… That’s when I met Minor. It was his going away party. He was headed to the Eastman House (in Rochester, New York). He invited me to come. In 1957, I went and stayed with him for several months.”
White was far more than a technical teacher. He encouraged Caponigro’s spiritual approach to photography with a hefty dose of Zen.
“Minor White said to me, ‘You should meditate more.’ I used to have arguments with him about that. I said I would meditate on the ground glass. Minor finally went for that. ‘To hell with the meditation,’ I said, ‘let’s go out and photograph.’ He got his students to be quiet long enough to see what is in the photograph. That was a really good teaching device.”
Caponigro has always been spiritually inclined. “I started my spiritual studies when I was 6. I was looking for that otherness. It announced itself when I was a boy. I studied everything. You find there are a lot of roads that lead to a spiritual being,” he says. So the Zen-inspired approach of awareness and openness was a natural fit. We hear not only White but the pianist Fondacaro when Caponigro discusses his approach to working:
“Transfer the idea of listening to seeing. You might get more of an essential feeling for what’s in front of you. Shut up and listen. You can hear the being. That’s as Zen as I could get. From buying the film right through the making of a negative. It’s one long process of inner quiet and love of the work.”
How does Caponigro find his subjects? He opens his mind and looks. There is no slow grind of conceptual or technical gears, no overdetermination. When it comes, inspiration arrives—Zen-like—in a flash. “You don’t want to trip over technique,” he explains. “It’s part of being a physical entity—setting up a tripod, light meter—recognition is instantaneous. If you learn the technique, you don’t have to rattle away in your head.”
His advice? Leave the nonsense at home—and don’t let anyone tell you the right way to do your own thing. “Stay as quiet and alert as you can manage,” he says with twinkling eyes. “Leave the mental clatter behind when you do go out. Being there helps you make the right choices.”