Both emotionally and visually, Paul Caponigro’s photographs arise from a contradiction: an intensity of serenity. That paradoxical combination may be what’s most distinctive about a distinguished career that’s in its seventh decade. Born in Boston and now living in Maine, Caponigro is most at home artistically anywhere that spirit becomes visible.
The most important word in the title of “Japan & Beyond: Photographs by Paul Caponigro,” which runs at Pucker Gallery through Oct. 6, is “beyond.” The show includes images not just from Japan, but also Monument Valley, Acadia, Yosemite, Nahant, Ireland, and even Kalamazoo, Mich. What such otherwise disparate locations have in common, at least as rendered by Caponigro’s camera, is an offer of transcendence: light and matter coming together to indicate a quiet exaltation.
The show comprises 47 black-and-white photographs. Ranging in date from 1957 to 2009, they amount to a mini-retrospective. That might be better than a full retrospective, actually, since the consistency of feeling Caponigro so skillfully maintains would threaten to become oppressive on a larger scale. Intensity, even when serene, tends to be experienced best in small doses. A student of Minor White, Caponigro balances in his work abstract ideal and physical particularity better than White did. Still, a bit of immanence can go a long way.
JAPAN & BEYOND: Photographs by Paul Caponigro
Another way to speak of this sense of immanence in Caponigro’s work is to say that it can often seem his photographs collapse the categories of animal, mineral, and vegetable. Each becomes an emanation for him of some larger force or quality of being. Rock can appear weightless, petals imperishable. Certain handiworks of man, like Japanese shrines or a French abbey, assume the aspect of natural phenomena.
Animal almost doesn’t figure here as a category. There are only two photographs with flesh-and-blood creatures. The herd in “Running White Deer, County Wicklow, Ireland” looks so ghostly as to seem immaterial (it’s a stunning visual effect). Just one photograph has a person in it, “Drummer – Izamo-Tai, Japan.” The musician seems physically as much a part of the setting as do his drum and the wooden structure surrounding him.
The uniqueness of a personality interests Caponigro less than the universality of a texture. Among the textures on display here are those of snow, finished wood, stone, water, sand, mist, bark, rope, shell. For all that essence is Caponigro’s abiding concern, he is awfully good at surfaces.
The Caponigro show shares the Pucker space with an assortment of ceramics by the late Brother Thomas Bezanson. Their presence might seem like an annoyance, necessitating the occasional need to peer around a pot or vase to look at a photograph. Instead, Bezanson’s works are complement rather than distraction. They’re serenity as solidity.