A Photographic Dynasty: A Father’s Day Chat with John Paul Caponigro

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When it comes to photographic dynasties, the name Caponigro holds a privileged position at the top of the list. The father / son duo of Paul and John Paul Caponigro are masters of their respective crafts, spanning many years and a broad reach, from the muted tonalities and classical elegance of Paul’s large format landscapes to John Paul’s complex, ethereal digital composites.

In 2016, B&H Photo hosted father and son as invited speakers at the B&H OPTIC Conference, where they both presented their work to great acclaim. Off stage, they also chatted about art, nature, and spirit with the Explora podcast team. After recently drawing inspiration from this archived content, we decided to take a deeper dive into the family history and respective working methods of these legendary artists in celebration of Father’s Day.

We caught up with John Paul Caponigro in a conversation over Zoom, and we present excerpts from our chat below, with their 2016 OPTIC presentations and podcast audio interspersed with the text.

Reflecting Stream, Reading, Connecticut © 1968, Paul Caponigro
Reflecting Stream, Reading, Connecticut © 1968, Paul Caponigro

Jill Waterman: Your father discovered photography as a young boy by watching his grandmother take a picture with a box camera. What’s your earliest memory of your father’s photographic practice?

John Paul Caponigro: When Dad got his first Guggenheim grant in the mid-’60s, he was thinking about going to Egypt, but it was dicey back then, and Mom said, “You know, Ireland has these great megalithic monuments, maybe we should try those.” So, we went, and he fell in love with the whole place.

One day, while he was photographing a megalithic monument, my mother took a picture of a black cat running across a field and into a hedge. We had been reading Irish fairy tales together and black animals were pookas, or animals that could cross between this world and the spirit world. I remember the look of amazement when she looked through her 3 x 5 prints and couldn’t find the cat. There must be a connection between this event and my interest in making the invisible visible.

Stone and Tree, Avebury England, © 1967, Paul Caponigro
Stone and Tree, Avebury, England © 1967, Paul Caponigro

What is your father’s family heritage? Did he come from an artistic family?

My father’s family emigrated from Italy to the Boston area. They weren’t exactly an artistic family, but he had an uncle Jimmy, who played the piano. I think Dad had an instant attraction to that, and he had support there. His sister got piano lessons first, but Dad really wanted to play the piano, so that ultimately became his thing. His older brother, Andy, also became a pretty accomplished jazz guitarist. So, there was definitely music in the family, at least with those two and Uncle Jimmy, for sure.

As a kid, I would mostly visit my grandparents' house, and they didn't have a piano there. But there was one function where I got to hear Uncle Jimmy play. I was just amazed at his level of playing. It was along the lines of Tony Bennett. He could play the keyboard, and then he also sang, but he was much more facile on the keyboard. My cousin, my aunt’s son, was also there, and he is an accomplished rock-and-roll keyboardist. They started riffing together, and it was great fun to see that kind of generational communication through music. And then, of course, Dad goes and plays Chopin. Yeah, let me show you what I can do. It was three generations of let me show you what I can do.

Paul Caponigro with his wife and son, John Paul, mid-1960s. Image courtesy John Paul Caponigro
Paul Caponigro with his wife and son, John Paul, mid-1960s. Image courtesy John Paul Caponigro

Your father makes large format photographs of landscape and nature. Outside of his artistic practice, did he or your mother make family snapshots when you were growing up?

When I was young, photography seemed to be a serious thing. It seemed like there were very few snapshots, but there were a few and both of my parents seem to find more as the years go by.

I think my mom had an Olympus 35mm with roll film. I don't even remember whether Dad had film rolls or not at that time. He did later, when I started doing some things. But, when I was younger, it didn't occur to me to ask why Mom would send her film to the drugstore and get these little 3 x 5" prints that he didn't make. I was just watching what they were doing.

OPTIC 2016: Black and White Mastery, with John Paul Caponigro

Do you have any early memories of your father teaching you about art or photography?

There are many stories. One time, Dad started talking about the color of the black-and-white prints he was making. “What color?” I asked. He then showed me how papers and developers and toners offered different subtle colorations, and how that changed the spatial dynamics within them, and our emotional responses to them. After that, I never thought of black-and-white or gray as colorless. You could even say they’re my favorite colors.

But, when you think of my father, just remember, there is no routine. He had certain papers and developers that he would favor. But he was very much interested in how each one had special characteristics, and wanted to become familiar with that, almost like becoming familiar with the tone of an instrument, matching the image with the characteristics of the paper / developer combination. He printed like his mother cooked, to taste. I remember getting the first pizza lesson from my grandmother. And she says, “Now you take a handful of salt,” and I'm like, “Nona, your hand is this big, and my hand is this big. So, give me your hand.” And I poured the salt from her hand into the measuring cup, and said, “OK, I'm going to write that down.”

So, it’s much more of a print-to-taste kind of thing. He just wasn't so technical. But it's hard to say that, because he did his homework. My dad really stripped-down Ansel Adams’s zone system into something that was very practical and approachable. He had done all of that, and then at a certain point, he liberated himself. You know, the technical can become an obsession. It can be what drives the show. And, he's enough of an artist to want to let the emotion, and then the perception, drive the process.

San Sebastian, New Mexico © 1982, Paul Caponigro
San Sebastian, New Mexico © 1982, Paul Caponigro

You met many important photographers and artists as a youth, who were friends of your father’s. Are there any memorable stories you can share from these encounters?

My father used to tease Ansel Adams that he had a cloud stick in his bag. So being a kid of 6 or 7, I went looking for it. I was young enough to believe in magic, and I was really disappointed to find out it was just a joke. Decades later I got my own cloud stick—Adobe Photoshop.

I was too young to take one of Ansel’s workshops, but I certainly watched him on opening nights, and evenings at dinner, and so many other times. As a kid, Ansel and Eliot Porter were two of my heroes because they were so involved with environmental organizations. But, also the fact that Ansel had this whole workshop program in the middle of Yosemite Valley, it was really quite magical. And then he would invite other artists to come in; he had created his own community. There aren't that many workshop programs out there like that, still today. It might have been the only one at that point. It was pretty neat to see that whole thing.

My relationship with Eliot Porter came out of my mom designing most of his books after a certain point. He lived right down the road, in Tesuque, New Mexico. He was tremendously influential to me in so many ways. He had such a keen, scientific mind, and this endless curiosity, this restlessness, this activeness socially, or at least environmentally. He was just a super guy.

Alignment V © 2013, John Paul Caponigro
Alignment V © 2013, John Paul Caponigro

Both of your parents are artists, and your mother focused on painting and graphic design. You started out as a painter; has her painting been an influence in your work? When and why did you choose photography as a primary creative path?

What my mother taught me about drawing, painting, design, and offset reproduction is just as important to my development as what my father taught me about black-and-white photography.

I use it all, as well as all the things I learned from others in school, such as writing. The moment I saw and used Photoshop is the moment I knew photography would be my primary, but not my exclusive, medium. Photoshop has allowed me to blend a variety of disciplines into one. It’s the ultimate tool for mixing media.

My mother started painting young, like I did. I started drawing before I could talk. She was pretty accomplished, went to summer school out at Colorado College, and graduated top of her class, in 1963, in painting at RISD. Then she went to work in a printmaking studio, and started developing her graphic design skills, which she used to design many of Dad's books. When they got divorced, she said, “I don’t want to leave New Mexico, and this is the closest thing I’ve got to a career, maybe this new service called FedEx will help.” So, she ran her studio in Tesuque, New Mexico, but was dealing with clients in New York and around the world.

I didn't see her paint a lot for herself. I think she was Super Mom by the time I came around, and she had been a little bit disenchanted by the art world. This other vehicle became a career. But she not only had a really unique talent, she had a beautiful blend of modern and classic sensibilities, she also really understood printmaking. She would go on press and oversee the production of books. She also understood what the artists were up to. She could speak their language. She was a terrific picture editor. When it comes to selecting and sequencing images, I learned a tremendous amount just watching her go through that process with so many different artists. If you want to call her a graphic designer, fine, that's what she did. She doesn't tend to toot her horn. But she did so much more than that, and I learned so much more from her. Just because I'm using a camera people think, “Oh yeah, your dad is your influence,” but my mom has an equal influence.

Two Leaves, Brewster, New York © 1963, Paul Caponigro
Two Leaves, Brewster, New York © 1963, Paul Caponigro

Music is very important to your father’s creative life, and your work straddles multiple media, as well. Do you find that drawing inspiration from more than one medium is particularly beneficial to artistic development?

I can’t stress how important it is to explore, and continue exploring, the diverse perspectives (the ways of being) that different disciplines offer—painting, photography, writing, music, etc. And going deep with at least one medium will allow you to find out more about the world and yourself, which is what our work is really about. The medium is secondary, though not unimportant, because it facilitates and encourages us to develop a way of being.

It’s also important to ensure that you remain an amateur (someone who does something purely for the love of it) in at least one medium. I'm going back to the original sense of the word amateur. Ama—meaning love—to do it for the love of it, as opposed to the slang term “Amature,” meaning immature.

I'm not talking about doing things superficially, without any understanding of history, of craft, or any of that. But I am suggesting that sometimes we can get so conventional, and so professional, that we really narrow our creativity and we often lose a kind of spontaneity and a spark when we pile all these professional concerns on our creative lives. And, if our creative lives are an extension of our being, of our spiritual life, of our holistic experience, then we're kind of amputating parts of ourselves. It's nice to be able to do things at a very professional level. It's nice to be dedicated and put in that elbow grease, that effort and passion. But when you start doing things for other people, or your career, or the public persona that you're trying to build, it can often become a problem. There are many pitfalls.

So, I think, if you’re creating art as a career, it's important to make sure you carve away time for yourself, and that you remember to play and be spontaneous, and experiment, and make that space. And if you’re just doing it for the love of it, don't feel like you have to involve all those professional concerns to legitimize what you're doing. In fact, you may be doing something that’s very vital for you, and if you move it in that direction, you're moving away from the more therapeutic, for lack of a better word—the personal development that might be the real reason you're in it.

Alignment XXXIII © 2017, John Paul Caponigro
Alignment XXXIII © 2017, John Paul Caponigro

Your father discovered music before photography, but chose photography to be outside in nature. Are there any such realizations that were central to your artistic development?

My first photography exhibit was with Dad, George Tice, and Eliot Porter, at the Maine Media Workshops. I think I was 19. I'm not exactly sure how and why Dad set it up, but I think he was raising the bar for me. He came home one evening, and said, “So kid, you’ve got a show.”

“Oh, that's cool,” I said. “So, who else is going to be in it?”

“Well, I am,” he says. “And George Tice is too, and Eliot Porter.”

“Ohhh.” I spent the next two weeks in Craig Stevens’, darkroom almost without sleep, and printed a very respectable show. There was some architecture, some nudes, and some landscape, all black-and-white silver gelatin prints. I rose to the challenge, and luckily my work held up well.

Then, I took it around to a lot of galleries and people would say, “Wow, this is great stuff. It's just like your father’s.” So, I went back to painting. There's that double-edged sword. You want to be seen for your own sensibilities. But it was a bit of a Godfather II moment when Photoshop came along. It was both a dream come true—there's my million-dollar coloring book—and it was also that once you cast your hat into this arena, there's always going to be this other name. You share that name.

John Paul Caponigro, Paul John Caponigro. His middle name is John. Dad will say they brought me home from the hospital not having named me. They were just waiting for me to tell them what my name was. Which just happens to be the opposite of his name. John is also my mom's father's name, too.

At any rate, I knew that once I cast my hat in that arena, there was no going back, there would always be this other conversation. Fathers are so important, but there are times when it gets to be a drag. Someone tells me, “So, I want to understand your work… so tell me about your father's work.” But the foundation is important. He's very definitely set a foundation and has been a big part of my life. He’s lived in the back end of my property for the past 25 years.

Galaxy Apple, New York © 1964, Paul Caponigro
Galaxy Apple, New York © 1964, Paul Caponigro

Although your father chose photography over music, the latter is a great metaphor for his artistic philosophy of being a vehicle for inspiration. In his words, “the process of music has an easy time of slipping past the brain...” With this quote in mind, do you have any suggestions making photographs that can “slip past the brain?”

Meditate. Watch yourself watching. Own your perceptions and be versatile with them. It’s not about the tool, it’s about you.

To strip it down, just be endlessly curious, like a kid. Reach back to that little kid that never went away, it just got covered over with adult. The adult isn't necessarily bad, it's very effective out in the world, but there are times where it can become a problem. Everything can be an asset and a liability.

That little kid is still in there. If you just get endlessly curious and continue to ask, “How does this work? Is this still working that same way? I don't know, what else we could do with that?” You start trying stuff, you ask a lot of questions, even about yourself. “So, I'm this photographer, I only do this one thing.” Boy, did you just limit yourself there! And it's not true either. I'm a father, I’m a husband, I'm a musician, I'm a writer, I'm so many things, and have so many capabilities. Those things can be the very seeds of further growth, even in our primary medium.

So, when I say versatile, it might take a little work. It definitely takes self-awareness, but the quality of our perception is under our control. We don't just have to react to the world and the ideas that we've inherited about it. This also means the ideas we've inherited about ourselves, whether we've constructed them, or other people have constructed them for us. When I say, “Own your perception,” I mean, take responsibility for it. Do that review. There are a lot of things that Western culture and our tradition comes with, some philosophical underpinnings, and it may not be serving us.

And, if it doesn't correlate with your experience, well, it's your life, it's your mind, it’s your heart, use it the way you want to use it, but it's got to start with awareness. And I think the best way toward getting to awareness is curiosity. It’s one of the things I emphasize in all of my workshops, just watch your process. And realize it's a process. It develops, it changes over time. There are influences. It has an ebb and a flow, and a distinct kind of vector. We don't stay the same. We can't. We're rivers, and the most important thing is to flow beautifully. So, are you flowing in the way that you want to flow? Are you making the river song you want to make? Or, are you singing somebody else's song? How sad is that? Because it’s a much more wonderful world when we're all singing these unique, beautiful songs.

Alignment II © 1999, John Paul Caponigro
Alignment II © 1999, John Paul Caponigro

What were your earliest encounters with digital imaging and Photoshop? What type of artwork were you making at that time?

My first introduction to digital imaging came long before Photoshop was invented, when I got to watch a demonstration of the Scitex machines used to make separations for Eliot Porter’s Intimate Landscapes, a book my mother designed. She called them “million-dollar coloring books.” They literally did cost millions of dollars, and they weren't as easy to use as a Mac and Photoshop, nor did they do as much, but I instantly saw the creative possibilities.

Fifteen years later, when I saw Photoshop, it was a dream come true. This was in late 1990, when Kodak set up the Center for Creative Imaging (CCI), in Camden, Maine, near the Maine Photographic Workshops. It was about a year or two after I had moved to Maine. For a few years, it was the only public digital training center. They had the Sun machines, Photoshop, Macs, and rest of it.

Maybe six months after CCI opened, I became an Artist in Residence, and spent a year with access to the facility. So, I got to print on a Kodak XL 7700, which made these 10 x 10" dye sublimation prints that looked really photographic. We were still looking to get photographic results then. That’s where I printed and exhibited my first digital show, which was part of an artist residency.

At the time, I was making surreal drawings from photographic reference materials. I started working with the first version of Photoshop, 1.0. No layers, and no color management. As Photoshop expanded my palette, I found I no longer had to draw my images to make them. They could be made much more quickly, so I could explore more ideas. I had flexibility to refine them further. In time I also found these new tools led to many new ways of seeing. For instance, symmetry was much easier to create, shape, and reshape.

Inhalation I © 1999, John Paul Caponigro
Inhalation I © 1999, John Paul Caponigro

Was working with symmetry something you discovered through Photoshop, or were you working with that using analog means?

My interest in symmetry was already there. I was endlessly fascinated with Rorschach, and that whole area of psychology: this other sense of a mirror, and the stories that we tell. I was fascinated with the way Jerry Uelsmann used symmetry. And Jerry was a big influence. I discovered Jerry’s work out at the Ansel Adams workshops. I think that's probably where I first met him.

One of the most interesting meals I've ever had was when Dad and Jerry were sitting down at the table after workshops. Dad and Ansel were classical pianists, so they're trading stories, and Ansel was a little bit more of a classicist. They were doing the whole, “Well, you know, Paul, I like Mozart.” Dad said, “Oh no, Chopin is so much more emotionally expressive.” And then, ever the jokester, Jerry says, “You know, I always find my player piano sounds better when I take off my socks. Barefoot is best.”

At some point, Dad couldn't resist pulling the cat's tail. And he says, “You know Ansel, if you can pre-visualize your images, you deserve what you get.” And Ansel is a little bit starchy, despite the cowboy hat and the bent nose. So, he takes him seriously, and says, “Well, when we coined the phrase pre-visualization, I didn't mean I knew exactly what I was going to get, but I was in control of my tools enough to know what I could get. And after all, I also said the negative is the score, and the print is the performance.”

And I'm watching Jerry the whole time and thinking this conversation doesn't relate to him. He shoots fragments, pieces. He recycles, reuses, the image happens more like a painting. And right on target, Jerry says, “You know, you're the reason I came up with post-visualization. I never would have come up with that mouthful otherwise. Can’t we just call it visualization?”

That comment also speaks to an aspect of this discussion that’s very important to me. There are many ways of seeing, and many ways of visualizing. All of these different processes are ways of facilitating a different form of perception, and a perception comes out of a relationship. The way that you relate to your subject, yourself, to the materials you're using. And they're all important. They change the outcome. They change how we come out.

Backlit Sunflower, Boroughbridge, Northg Yorkshire, England © 1965, Paul Caponigro
Backlit Sunflower, Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, England © 1965, Paul Caponigro

Your father’s work is reductive in nature, while you often use an additive process. Setting process aside, do you feel you’re both seeking to communicate a similar message?

Dad previsualizes. When people ask me if I previsualize or post visualize, I say, “Yes.”

My father and I both explore spiritual relationships with nature. We’re interested in deeper qualities of mind and emotion. While we share many of the same passions, we have our own different natures (sensibilities), which are reflected in our work.

Dad celebrates the emotional and the musical, as do I, but I make equal room for the intellectual, and writing is an important part of my process. Dad has a more developed sense of intimate details that are worlds unto themselves, while I have a stronger sense of the spaces that define a place and the larger contexts they create. Dad’s imagery is more lyric and mine is more epic; both are sublime in their own ways.

My favorite Hindu fable tells a story of five blind men sharing their very different impressions of and conjectures about what it is they are touching. It’s not until they listen to each other that they figure out it’s an elephant. We’ve got a hold of the same elephant, but different parts of it, and we hold it in different ways. Though both our works shine on their own, I think the comparison and contrast between them might ultimately be even more illuminating.

Tree Stump, Bloomfield, New York © 1957, Paul Caponigro
Tree Stump, Bloomfield, New York © 1957, Paul Caponigro

Your father has no interest digital technology. What was his reaction to your earliest explorations in digital imaging? And what are his favorite tools for making pictures?

My father has always been quite supportive of my art, whether I’m drawing, or photographing, or combining both with Photoshop. He’s never been prejudiced against a tool. He’s always focused on the quality of the imagery—particularly the internal qualities—no matter what the image is made with.

I think he’s still using his 5 x 7" Deardorff. He shifted from the 4 x 5" to 5 x 7" back in the ’70s, and he's used that Deardorff field camera forever. He's also got a Sinar, and once in a while I think he uses a little Mamiya M6, just for little things here and there.

Don't tell anybody, but he’s never cottoned up to the iPhone he got two years ago. We got him a cell phone because he’d sometimes drive himself across country. I told him, “Dad, if the car breaks down, you need to be able to call somebody.” And, then he surprised us and said, “Well, I want an iPhone, too.” And I'm like, “Okay, we'll give you lessons, whenever you're ready for them.” I didn't think it would take, but at least he can make a call. That old dog doesn't want to learn that new trick, or at least not quickly. He loves to joke that he doesn't e-anything. He doesn't email, he doesn't Internet. And he never crashes. Which isn't exactly true either.

Correspondence V © 1998, John Paul Caponigro
Correspondence V © 1998, John Paul Caponigro

What cameras are your favorites to work with, both analog and digital?

Before I transitioned to digital, I was shooting with the Mamiya 645. I think I had started using Canon’s first digital DSLR, the 3.1-megapixel Canon EOS 30D, around 2000. Canon sent that new camera to all their Explorers of Light. I was in New Mexico teaching when I got the camera, and I was fascinated with it. I still have some images that I make large prints from those files. That was the first digital camera I used, but it didn't equal scanned film, so I continued scanning until I tested the Canon 1D S.

Currently, I use the Canon 5DS R, and I tend to favor wide-angle zooms over primes. So it's either my Canon EF 24 – 70mm f/2.8L, or my Canon EF 16 – 35mm f/2.8L. For me, it's about being able to explore. It's a versatility thing. There are plenty of times when I'm on a boat, or in a Zodiac, or at the edge of a cliff where I can't zoom with my feet.

I also use my iPhone. I've used it as my sketchbook, since it first came out, and I've recently been challenging myself to use it more and more. I mean, it's in my pocket, Chase Jarvis was right; it's always there. But when I pick it up, I know I’m in exploration mode, in play mode, in questioning mode. Because it's not as good as your “big boy camera,” as Jack Davis called it.

It's been interesting to use the iPhone. It has limits. But I absolutely love being able to see the image and the scene at the same time. I personally feel this is a better visualization device. For me, it's being able to see the image and the scene simultaneously. I love that.

LandInLand_LXXXIX © 2018, John Paul Caponigro
LandInLand_LXXXIX © 2018, John Paul Caponigro

You are deeply immersed in technology, which requires very different skills from creative inspiration. What relationship these two factors have within your creative process? Do technical matters ever get in the way of artistic expression?

There's a bunch of ways to approach that question. I think we do need to acknowledge that the minute we pick up any tool, we accept the limits that it imposes. I can’t remember who said, “Learning to photograph is learning to see the way the camera sees.” There’s a photographic vision; these tools do certain things. They encourage you to relate in certain ways. Jock Sturges picks an 8 x 10 view camera, because he knows it changes the relationship it strikes up with the nude people he's photographing on the beach. They think he's taking it more seriously. He's out from under the dark cloth when he makes the exposure and looking them in the eye. Choosing that tool changes what's happening.

I got away from the view camera because I found myself at Lake Tahoe, on Sand Beach. Because I was carrying a DSLR I had jumped out on the rocks, and looking into the water, tenuously, and photographing reflections. And I just started laughing. I made the realization that I never would have even made the walk if I was carrying my tripod and view camera. I never would have had that experience, much less made those pictures.

So, it's very clear to me that the tools we use shape our experience. We have to learn that. Everything is an asset and liability. It has wonderful potential, but it also has certain limitations. And I constantly tell my students that to learn to think outside the box, you first have to have a box. Just make sure you draw the box in pencil, because at some point you're going to want to erase an edge and get a new box that fits what you're trying to do better. Along the way, you may discover something. You may change. You may come into a new situation where you need a new box. So be flexible with that box.

OPTIC 2016: Insight into Two Generations of Master Artists, with John Paul and Paul Caponigro

The catalog, “Two Generations,” combines your father’s images with your own. Please tell us about this project. Was he involved in the image selection or editing process?

I did the work. He made a few tweaks. The catalog was an outgrowth of an exhibit organized in the mid-’90s at Maine Coast Artists, which is now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The director, Bruce Brown, is a very interesting and influential curator, reviewer, and force in the Maine scene. He decided to do this “Two Generation” show, and then it quickly went to the George Eastman House for a second showing. It has since toured the country at different museums, universities, and galleries, and it continues to evolve.

The catalog was first produced in the 2000s, and my mother is now working on designing a book, which will be more extensive, with more essays. I had a certain vision for the book and, so far, Dad has just run with it. He’s given me the writing I need. I made the initial image selection, then he tweaked it, but he really wants to rely on Mom to do it. I know that she’ll make really interesting and valuable contributions—and I think, as a family affair, it’ll be a special thing.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia, © 1965 Paul Caponigro
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © 1965 Paul Caponigro

When you were younger, you accompanied your father on photographic trips. Is there any one that stands out in your memory?

We travelled and photographed together a great deal when I was first learning photography. In fall 1984, we spent a lot of time together when dad was teaching in Europe. I was in college and had realized that the Yale art department and I were not a good fit, and I just needed to take a little time off.

I just said, “Hey dad, you're teaching in Europe, do you need an assistant? Can I take a semester off?” So, I helped him teach his workshop in Ireland. And then we drove around Ireland and Scotland, took the ferry across to France and then onward to Rome. So, we had quite a long tour, shooting both 4 x 5 black-and-white and color transparency. It was a long, fun trip, with a lot of funny moments.

I remember once we got to Rome, I had never been to the Vatican, but I'd been studying it in art history. I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. I said, “Dad, here it is, 12 blocks away, we’ve got to go!”

And Dad said, “No, I'm not going there, Italian traffic is too much of a hassle.”

I pleaded, “Dad, I'll get up at five o'clock in the morning and just wait in the door. I'm going to walk there.”

“No, you're not going,” he demanded. I was just beside myself. I didn't know what to do. So, I called my mother, and said, “Mom, I really don’t know what to do with this character… Help!”

She tells me, “Put him on the phone.” She says two words to him. “Great acoustics.”

“Okay. We're going,” he announces. We got there in the morning, and we were in the Basilica, seeing the Michelangelo and that Bernini gold altar. It was incredible, and under the grates you could hear the monks singing their chants, filtering up from the floor. It was really quite magical. I didn't know the code to get us there, but Mom did. So, it was a great trip, a lot of fun. We had a lot of conversations. We made a lot of images.

More recently, as my career became more demanding, and as he got older, he started traveling less, so we haven’t photographed together in a long time, but we still share the photographs we make with each other.

Illumination II, © 2012 John Paul Caponigro
Illumination II, © 2012 John Paul Caponigro

You and your father are both renowned teachers. Please talk about your respective approaches to teaching and photo education.

Dad taught me photography. I watched him teach others. I watched the other workshop instructors he worked with teaching their students. I helped him teach his last group workshop, in 1993. Since then he’s only worked with a few individuals one-on-one. I’ve taught more than Dad has (more workshops) through more channels (books, ebooks, videos, columns in print and online) on many more subjects (creativity, visual storytelling, color, processing, as well as printing, presentation, writing, and marketing). My medium and my alumni are more diverse and so is my approach to teaching. So are the images they produce.

Dad’s approach is quieter, slower, and more tactile, sometimes almost meditative. I’m more versatile and holistic (giving equal weight to mind, body, and emotion). I sometimes teach different forms of meditation as ways of finding our own still points in an ever faster turning world.

Wake I © 1999, John Paul Caponigro
Wake I © 1999, John Paul Caponigro

How has the recent situation with COVID-19 affected your workshops and your own work?

We had planned for postponing the late spring field workshops to the fall. Pushing the printing workshops from July to September, we'll see how that goes. But I have no clue what's going to happen if the fall closes back down. While I certainly could develop some online courses and email subscription things that I've been wanting to do, these recent events have opened up space for me to do the creative things that I think are really going to fuel me and my next steps.

I've recently been prioritizing my personal work, and I've needed to do that for a long time. As we've transitioned away from having a couple of assistants, down to no assistants in the studio, there were things that just needed to be cleaned up. I had let my assistants handle my archive, so, I've finally fixed the archive, so it works for me.

I had planned to take six weeks off, because I just ran my last Antarctica workshop at the end of February, and I needed to recharge. I needed to make images. As creatives, we do the work to enliven other parts of ourselves. And a lot of times when I'm running these workshops, I’m going out and doing lectures, writing articles, there’s not enough time to immerse yourself in the work. I've been saying for a long time that I'd like four solid weeks every year, uninterrupted, but it never really happened. You steal two weeks here, three days there. Yet, there is something to be said for immersing yourself, and staying with it long enough. But I’ve also found, and I am worried about this, just shutting off all of the other inputs, not having all the calls coming in, not answering the emails, not planning the next thing, just getting quieter. It's been one of my most productive times ever.

I've finished the Antarctica book that I want to do. It's taken a whole new turn. It's ready to go to publishers. There's this other project I've been thinking about developing for 10 years, and I knew I wanted to do it last year. I’ve just about finished it in the past two weeks, or at least brought it to critical mass. I’ve also started writing a book that isn't about photography. It's about mindfulness and nature, and I'm 25% of the way through that.

Because I'm not doing workshops this summer, I’m about to take an online poetry course with Richard Blanco through Maine Media Workshops. I was like, “I'm pretty sure I can do this, but how well can I do it?” And I was just watching this vacillation inside me. It's not quite a quiver; it's a little bit of uneasiness. And I said, “Oh, that's the right amount of uneasiness, you need to do this. Push yourself.” It's a wonderful opportunity to study with Richard. He's a wonderful poet and a great guy. I know I’m going to learn a lot, not just about writing, but also about myself.

Suffusion VIII © 2007, John Paul Caponigro
Suffusion VIII © 2007, John Paul Caponigro

You have a 19-year-old son, making your father a grandfather. Do you see any differences in your father’s relationship with his grandson from his relationship with you as a child?

He seems even more supportive of my son than he was of me, which is saying something because he was very supportive of me. Mostly, Dad will come over and we’ll have meals, and watch movies. My son Sol will show him images and he'll celebrate them. He's very good about just being very supportive. Part of this is where Dad is now, he’s older, he’s softer, and he’s lighter.

Do you have any memories of celebrating Father’s Day with your father?

Being very spontaneous, Dad has never been much for tradition or ritual. But he’ll never pass up a good meal. Now that’s Italian!

B&H Photography Podcast at OPTIC 2016: Landscape Masters Michael Kenna, Paul Caponigro, and John Paul Caponigro

While Father’s Day is seen as modern, secular holiday in America, since it originated in 1910, it has much deeper roots in Europe, generally celebrated as St. Joseph’s Day, on March 19. Do you have any final thoughts about the significance of a day celebrating fatherhood and paternal bonds?

Any expression of gratitude and love is a good thing. I wish we could invest our rituals with more substance. I didn’t know the history of the event until you shared this with me. Thank you. If we celebrate it, why don’t we know this? But more importantly, do we make a shared space for developing a fuller understanding of what fatherhood is, how many ways it can be expressed, and what unique contributions our individual fathers bring to it? Do we search ourselves to reflect on this? Do we share this with others, especially our fathers? If there’s a Mother’s and Father’s Day, how about a Daughter’s Day and a Son’s Day? Hopefully, events like this help us appreciate what we have even more, each day of the year. Every day is Father’s Day (or Mother’s Day) when we hug.

Editor's note: Today is June 23. Happy Birthday, John Paul Caponigro!

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