A New Story

In 1970 I was a senior photo student at the RI School of Design. About 6 of us were in a thesis class with Harry Callahan as our teacher. In those years, Harry's career was taking off. Occasionally he wasn't in class. To his credit, he always arranged for someone to take the class. One day, who showed up for class, but Paul Caponigro (SR) to show us some work.

He'd just finished printing a set of 4 x 5 pictures he'd made literally in his backyard in rural Connecticut. Of course, they were in black and white. Shot on foggy and overcast days they were an intimate look at some woods and a small stream that went through the bottom of his backyard. He made the pictures in late February and throughout March. 

In an almost meditative quiet, he spoke softly of what these pictures were to him in relation to the rest of the work made over his career and what they showed of his character and being. This manner of talking to us was a revelation. We didn't know each other but that didn't seem to matter. We were tuned into these very beautiful photographs and the man that made them. It was an incredible experience. He spoke of needing the right light and how he set up the tripod and camera and stood there, the picture framed but needing the right moment. At maybe 1/2 a second or longer of exposure the fast water was silvery and soft while the rest was deep black. I'm not sure but I  believe the prints were about 5 x 7-inches, printed on 8 x 10-inch paper. Big hadn't happened yet.

What we were seeing was new work from a major 20th-century artist at the zenith of his powers, sharing work with us, we lowly students in the back classroom on the first floor of Benson Hall in March 1970 in Providence, RI. We saw exceptional work that afternoon and were seriously humbled by it. It raised the stakes, for me at least, on what could be done, what could be made by a single artist, and helped me understand the depth and range that good work could have. 

photograph by Paul Caponigro, 1968

As I said, I didn't know Paul Caponigro then and that remains true today. But I   am most thankful for that afternoon so long ago. If you don't know the work of this 20th-century master I suggest searching it out. His son, John Paul, has become very well known but went off with a different approach.

Early days, meeting people that form a deep impression, influencing and helping form an aesthetic. We all have those people in whatever field we ended up in. Although the technology has changed drastically and Covid has canceled many plans for the younger to meet with masters I encourage you to pursue meetups wherever possible.

Interesting interview with John Paul: here about growing up with Paul as his father.

Permalink | Posted February 26, 2022