Digital Photo Pro
One on One
by John Paul Caponigro
This article first appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Digital Photo Pro.
JPC What are you thinking? Interviewing yourself? How can you do that?
JPC I do this professionally with other artists, so why can’t I do it with myself?
What’s an interview? Questions and answers. I can ask questions. I can answer them.
I love good questions and the insights they can bring. Questions lie at the heart of my work. My work is a product of asking questions and it raises questions for those who see it.
Besides, the classic interview questions can be so formulaic. What’s your history? What’s your education? Who are your influences? What kind of equipment do you use? What are some of the finer points of your working process (framing the question with the assumption that you work like other artists)? I answer those questions year in and year out. Once you’ve heard that, don’t you want to hear something else? And, after all, you’ve got the inside track here, you know everything about me; where I’ve been, how I got there, and what I’ve been thinking. You should be able to ask insightful questions that no one else can and in a way that will both helps me feel comfortable answering them and allows me to be as clear as possible.
Oh, by the way, just like Cartier-Bresson, I prefer the word conversation to interview.
Do I address you as you, we, or I/me? Do I address myself as I/me, we, or you?
JPC Good question. I don't have an answer. But then you're the one being interviewed so the burden is on you to come up with the answers.
Do we still need the initials before each question and answer here if they're the same? I'm the one asking the questions, for now, so that means I'll have to come up with the answer for that one.
Let's start with the basics.
Why do you take pictures?
JPC I make images to express wonder and love for the world. The picture frame is a meeting place. Making images offers me a way to explore the natural world, my responses to it, and my community’s responses to it. The responses can be universal, cultural, personal or some combination of all three.
JPC Why focus on nature?
JPC The natural world is the matrix we arise from, that sustains us, and that we return to. It is us. I make no separation between us and it, though that pattern of thought is deeply embedded in our culture, so deeply embedded that we don’t even possess language to describe the larger phenomenon of us/it. Through my work I hope deconstruct this false duality and suggest a more holistic way of relating. If we treat the environment (anything really) as a part of ourselves, our actions towards it will automatically become more conscientious and we will be happier, healthier, and more complete.
JPC What do you hope to achieve with your work?
JPC I hope that my work can reinvigorate people's passion for and participation with nature. There are many artists who have documented the changing conditions of our natural environment with the hope of inspiring greater success for preservation efforts. I thank each and every one of them. And I hope that my work can inspire similar acts of conscientiousness and compassion. I make my contribution not by documenting what has passed in an attempt to slow or stop this process. Instead, my work suggests ways of relating to the natural world. It asks people to look closely at what's outside, what's inside, and how deeply involved in the process we all are. It's not an invitation to get involved, we're all already involved. It's an invitation to clarify our involvement, to reinvigorate our participation, and to empower and celebrate our highly personal and unique contributions to this process. Change happens. Do we accept change in ways we don't want or do we work towards change we do want?
JPC Speaking of change, you can't always tell what has been changed in your images or how it's been changed.
JPC I make altered images that don’t look altered and unaltered images that look altered. The effect is deliberately disconcerting. This ambiguity begs the question, “how do we know what we know?” The inability to answer this question through conventional means offers the viewer a chance to reflect upon their own experience. My images are an invitation to look at us looking. The world is wonderful and mysterious. My work is an invitation to participate more fully in that mystery.
JPC Seeing is not believing. Believing is not seeing.
JPC Hey, isn't this my interview?
JPC Yes it is. Now get a grip. You know I'm just trying to get you to say more. Say more.
JPC I deliberately leave traces of my process in the final work. I consider this a form of disclosure. While I attempt to be more transparent, to be open to the possibilities of my subject, my medium, and myself, I feel I must acknowledge the presence and influence of all three. I prefer that a viewer assumes that my work has been altered, even if it hasn't been (at least not in the traditional sense of the word). That sets up a dialog where the viewer starts asking questions rather than making assumptions. My work with abstraction dematerializes my subject matter, raising questions of permanence and impermanence. Abstraction drives the viewer away from the external toward the internal, raising questions of objectivity and subjectivity. I'm trying to transcend the Cartesian duality of objectivity and subjectivity. I'm striving for intersubjectivity. Subject, witness, and viewer are all engaged in a dynamic exchange. My work is like a reflecting pool; reflecting the natural world, reflecting my impressions and interactions with the natural world, reflecting the viewers’ interactions with my work and the natural world. The reflective quality of my work has been intensifying.
While I think it's a noble concept, I don't believe objectivity can truly be achieved. We've been deconstructing the notion of truth in photography for some time now. Digital imaging cuts to the core of this line of inquiry and does so very publicly. This is good. We need a more consistent and vigorous dialog on the subject. We can't assume that a photograph represents truth any more than people in the middle ages could assume that because something was written in Latin it was the truth; even though both were considered standards for truth at one time. Today we are forced to recognize that notions of truth are complex and highly problematic. Truth is constructed. Interpretation is a highly creative act. Still we need consensus with others, to help validate our conclusions, but more importantly to live together with one another. These are very challenging issues. Because we're all in this together, we need each other to help us create answers that are useful.
JPC So which is it? The truth is out there? Or, truth is in the eye of the beholder?
JPC What's the function of symmetry in your work?
JPC The psychologist Rorschach developed his inkblot tests after seeing the drawings of a mystic named Kerner who felt that his work drew him in contact with the spirit world. Like Kerner, I feel this work gives visible form to a hidden dimension in nature and to spirit. Like Rorschach, I realize these images function as mirrors and that the process we use to decode the images says as much about us as our conclusions do.
My images serve a similar function to mandalas; mandalas without culturally specific iconography. The mandala is a pancultural occurrence that usually arises spontaneously in times of crisis as a tool for self-reflection, integration, and self-definition.
While I've been exploring it longer and more deeply than most, many digital artists are exploring symmetry. It's an interesting graphic device capable of creating powerful constructions and abstractions. Symmetry for symmetry's sake is mere design. For it to be truly successful, I think you have to establish a highly personal relationship with the technique and make sure that the technique is compatible with the content of your work. Symmetry heightens the self-reflective qualities of my work. Symmetry suggests living forms or life and through the use of symmetry my work suggests that we can expand our notions of what we consider living or embued with spirit, looking at all of nature as dynamic parts of a much greater life process.
JPC So, I'm perplexed by your move away from narrative towards abstraction.
JPC I’ve been profoundly influenced by mythology. In the world’s great stories I see the psyche of mankind made visible. In my earlier work I used stories and symbols in an attempt to access that dimension. Progressively, I’ve moved away from this, trying to sustain a similar activity, while diminishing the role of story and symbolism, which is so often historically and culturally dependent, in an attempt to work in a more timeless and universal way.
JPC Isn't it ironic that we're just as influenced by the things that repel us as the things that attract us?
JPC Yes. I know where you're going. I railed against abstraction as a young art student. I felt it left the viewer behind. Now I use it to include the viewer.
JPC I hardly have to ask you questions. I could prompt you with a single word, since you know what I'm asking anyway.
JPC I have a complex relationship with surfaces.
I trust surfaces. They reveal so much. I've spent my whole life looking at the surfaces other artists create and know that they reveal so much about their creators. I've spent my whole life looking at the surfaces of nature and wonder what they reveal about their creator.
I distrust surfaces. Every surface conceals something else behind or beneath it. We need surfaces to see but they limit our perceptions. Surfaces are products of the material world, therefore impermanent. The material world, including our bodies (organs of sensory perception), set the conditions for our participation in it but they do not determine it. Somehow I link this thought to a phrase from physics - energy can neither be created nor destroyed. I need to think more on how to clarify that connection. But that thought leads me to this one. My work is a celebration of the particular and the ephemeral and a quest for the essential and the eternal.
JPC It's invisible. How can you make images of the invisible? We use traces in the material world to tell us about things that are there that we can't see. Take energy. We know it's all around us, in us even, yet until we see it interact with the material world we have difficulty acknowledging, apprehending, or interacting with it. Take waves, the largest unifying element that runs throughout my work. Buckminster Fuller wrote, "The wave is not the water. The water merely told us about the wave passing by." Sounds like a photograph. Sounds like a life lived.
JPC The vast majority of photographs are records of light reflected off of surfaces found in the material world. Classically photographs render objects in space. A few photographs are about space rather than the materials that occupy, mark, or enclose it. Still fewer are about light itself.
The theme of light is very significant in my work. Metaphorically, it can be seen as a manifestation of spirit.
JPC I'm fascinated and troubled by time in photographs. On the one hand, the photograph is able to arrest time enabling us to consider and reconsider at length fleeting and ephemeral phenomena. The photograph extends our perceptual faculties allowing us to see and experience (second hand) more. On the other hand, there is a temptation to think that art immortalizes a subject and that by making records we can hold onto things - permanence is illusory. Then there's memory, the primary container of our experience. It's fallible and becomes more so with the passage of time. Many times we are tempted to defer to the documents we create, which always distort, rather than the direct experiences we have. That applies to memory, which changes, and documents seek to fix memory - again, permanence is illusory.
JPC Space, light, time - the things your work are about. Aren't they all the things that are missing from the final product - the print? The artifacts you create seem to be, in part, defined by conspicous absence.
JPC Why all these big words and big ideas? Aren't images supposed to be seen and not heard?
JPC The images come first. The words follow. I think it's important to do the work first and then step back and think about what's happened. I don't plan my next art assault with a series of calculated desconstructions designed to titillate a specific segment of the art market and go out an execute that battle plan. When I make images I looking for revelation. I want to be changed by my work. We talk a lot about how our lives influence what we create. I don't think we talk enough about how what we create influences our lives. While our work is a reflection of us, doing the work also changes who we are. The first stance treats work as a symptom of a condition. The second stance suggests we have a choice in what we do and what we become. I want to open my eyes again and again. I want to consider issues that matter deeply to me. I'm a human beings so it's likely that the issues that matter to me will matter to other people. I'm as surprised by my work as anybody. After I make it, I spend a lot of time trying to understand it. Words help. They help me and they help others understand more. There's the temptation to think that once you've said or read the words you understand all that the work has to offer. That's not true. Images have dimensions that words cannot describe, just as the world has dimensions our images cannot describe. Still we value both images and words. Understanding my work and contributing to other people's understanding of my work is important to me. I am responsible for my work.
So writing has actually become a part of my creative process now. I find the creative process fascinating. Don't you?
JPC Yes. I watch the creative process very carefully. I don’t have a single way of working. I have a collection of strategies for working that I call on for the particular needs of a given situation. I make photographs that document the world before the lens, which I alter very little. I make photographs that I alter significantly. I sketch with images or words and find or create raw materials in the world from which to construct new realities. I make images that faithfully represent the world outside. I make images that construct and reveal a world inside. I respond to both the external world and my internal world. I bring the outside in and the inside out. I realize that intention fashions a process, that process influences experience, and the work done is a product of experience. My work becomes a meeting place for a complex set of phenomena.
Nice way to turn the tables by the way, finishing an answer with a question. At least you didn't answer a question with another question. Though that can sometimes be interesting, especially in your case.
JPC Are you a painter or a photographer?
JPC That's somebody else's question. And you already know the answer.
I'm a visual artist. I make images. I'll use any tool that comes to hand and seems appropriate for the task - charred wood, paint, still photograph, moving photograph, rendering software.
That said, while I defy categorization, I recognize that each medium fosters a certain kind of interaction with a subject, itself, and myself. They all have strengths and weaknesses. You need the right tool for the job, and enough facility with the tool to get the job done well.
JPC Why don't you want to talk about the tools and techniques you use?
You mean my Canon 1Ds, Apple G5, Adobe Photoshop, and Epson 9600? As a painter, I was never asked about my Windsor Newton sable hair brushes, watercolor, pastels, graphite, canvas, or paper. These are tools we use to get work done. I love my tools. I use the best I can find. But tools don't make work, people do. It's much easier to talk about technique than content. The one is not a substitute for the other. In a similar vein, Jerry Uelsmann remarked that memorizing a dictionary doesn't guarantee that you'll have something to say or learn to speak artfully. To be fair, there is a time and place for technical talk; it can be useful. This is not it.
JPC What's your favorite Photoshop tool?
JPC You've got to be kidding me.
JPC Why do you teach? Who are your teachers?
I teach because I find it deeply fulfilling to help other artists. I hope the work I do makes a positive contribution to the world. When I teach, I get immediate confirmation that I have been able to help others.
My parents, both artists, taught me a tremendous amount. Throughout my education I had many fine teachers, in many fields, most in disciplines other than the arts, who helped me learn how to learn. I learn from work done by others. I learn from my colleagues. Teaching has taught me. Everyone and everything has the potential to teach.
JPC I always ask this of the people I interview. You should receive the same courtesy, even though I know what's on your mind. Is there anything that we haven't touched on that you would like to discuss?
JPC You know I have so much more to say. We’ve only scratched the surface. But I know we have a limited amount of space here. I post interviews and artist's statements on my website - johnpaulcaponigro.com. There's a lot of information there and more accumulates every year. In some ways, it's like a public journal.