John Paul Caponigro


June 2006

John Paul Caponigro has a background in painting which informs his chemical and digital photography. His work resides in numerous private and public collections. An authority on digital processes, John Paul teaches privately in his studio and internationally at prominent workshops. He lectures frequently at universities, museums, and conferences. John Paul’s work has been published widely. He is a contributing editor for Camera Arts and View Camera and a columnist forPhotoTechniquesDigital Photo Pro, and His book Adobe Photoshop Master Class is now in its second edition. John Paul’s web site is located at Jim Kasson interviewed John Paul between sessions of the Epson Print Academy in San Francisco.

JK: What was it like to become an artist with a famous photographer for a father?

JPC: It was totally natural for me. One of the wonderful things was all the people that would come through, or who we’d visit: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Laura Gilpin, and Eliot Porter. We got to see the complex characters behind the photography. It wasn’t just because of Dad. When Mom started designing books, there was another colorful cast of characters who paraded through her studio. She’d go and work with Georgia O’Keeffe at the Ghost Ranch or go to the Metropolitan and talk to Weston Naef. We were a visual family. Mom was a painter, Dad was a photographer, and I was both.

JK: Was it all positive?

JPC: I had some reluctance to be measured by someone else’s standard. Some people relate to people with some notoriety with…I’m not sure how to describe it.

JK: There’s a cult of personality in the art world; the artist becomes more important than the art.

JPC: Having grown up with artists, I know that they’re normal people who happen to do at least one thing really well.

JK: I have found, at least, in the Monterey area, the photographic community to be incredibly generous.

JPC: It’s true everywhere. It’s been very important in recent years because our medium is changing so fast. We need community. We’re all in this together.

JK: The photographic world was much smaller for your father.

JPC: I listen to Dad talk about the early days with Minor and Ansel when you could hardly sell a photograph. There was a strong sense of community then, in part because they were figuring out what photography was and could be to that generation at that moment in history. This time is similar in many ways, though different in others. This is a period of reconsideration and reinvention of photography. We haven’t rejected everything that has gone before us, but we’re just figuring out what these new tools can do. I find it tremendously exciting. We need to recognize that photographers are part of the visual community. We need dialog, clear rigorous dialog, at the public level, about what constitutes acceptable practice in specific contexts. One of the core debates of our time centers around whether digital technology threatens the truth value we attribute to photography. Today, people feel they can no longer trust photographs.

JK: They never could.

JPC: It’s a matter of degree. Too often we frame issues as dichotomies leading to either/or choices. It’s more useful to frame them as dialectics, which can help in delineating all the shades of grey between two poles. When it comes to veracity, we place too much emphasis on the medium and not enough emphasis on the ethical stances of practitioners and appropriate practices within specific contexts. There are other issues as well. Photography is often seen as ubiquitous, democratic, instantaneous (thus easy), and disposable. Anybody can do it. This has a negative impact on the business of photography. More and more media organizations are insisting on all-rights buyouts. Pressure is generated by the stock industry to make photography free.

JK: The ubiquity of photography, with cameras in cell phones and pictures zipping around over the ‘Net, could create a new generation of photographers, but familiarity sometimes does breed contempt.

JPC: I smile when I hear Vincent Versace say, “The next Michelangelo is a soccer mom.” I agree that everyone has something to contribute. We all have vast untapped resources. If we find ways to tap them, extraordinary things may happen. Photography is a democratic medium and is getting more so. It’s a wonderful creative discipline for anyone. It’s easy to get started and produce a competent product. But, it’s very hard to make a really good one.

JK: You came to photography after starting as a painter?

JPC: I decided to pick up photography while I was in college. I learned from my father. I couldn’t get a better teacher, and it was a good way to spend some time with Dad. I studied with Dad in the summers. I studied painting and literature during the academic year. I put together a nice small body of photographs. Then, I turned my focus back to painting.

JK: Then, you went to Camden; right?

JPC: The Center for Creative Imaging [a pioneering digital imaging center started in 1990 by Eastman Kodak and John Sculley, then CEO of Apple Computer]. I became an artist-in-residence there and never looked back. Experiencing Photoshop really was a Godfather II moment for me: “Just when you think you’re out, they suck you back in.”

JK: The modern digital tools give photography the plasticity of painting.

JPC: It’s a marvelous marriage for me. Before, I was using photographs as a basis for paintings. Now I’m painting with photographs. It’s a dream come true. When Mom designed and oversaw the production of Eliott Porter’s Intimate Landscapes book, I was exposed to the Scitex machines that did digital imaging in the era before Photoshop. The first time I saw them, the demo was banal: take a Palmolive bottle, make three of them, distort them, and change green to purple. I instantly saw the potential. I thought, “What if an artist got hold of that tool?” By 1990, a Macintosh with Photoshop was doing more.

JK: And with a better user interface than 150 knobs.

JPC: There may be even better interfaces coming. I was just talking to one of the senior marketing reps at Adobe, about the time in the 1990s when Adobe replaced a whole sector of the prepress market. Now Adobe’s at the top of the heap with Photoshop. At some point, there will be a replacement for it. It’s very hard for companies to be their own challengers, but those ideas are very much alive in Adobe right now with Adobe LightRoom. Photoshop has become a very complex program. Many people are just coming to digital photography and their needs are simpler.

JK: Photoshop seemed initially to be aimed mostly at the prepress market and graphic artists.

JPC: It’s been nice to see photographic issues, and the language and thought processes of photography become more of an emphasis within the culture of Photoshop. In the early days of Photoshop, digital photography had some serious problems: we didn’t have truly continuous tone output, and digital capture was cumbersome and expensive. Photographers were a significant niche in the Photoshop community from its inception—consider its name. Now, digital input to output surpasses traditional chemical processes. As a result, there’s been a huge migration of photographers from chemical to digital processes.

JK: Some people are turning to digital because of its capabilities, but some are running from chemical photography because the choices are diminishing there, which is sad.

JPC: The lack of choice is lamentable. Kodak’s discontinuation of silver gelatin paper is a recent watershed moment in photographic history. On the other hand, digital technology has brought new options for traditional processes. The ease in making digital contact negatives has created a resurgence in historic processes. This is happening in the same time frame when more people are making their own prints, largely color, than ever before. Silver has been on its way to becoming an alternative process for some time now. The difference between it and other historic processes like platinum is that silver require a large manufacturing base, thus corporations with profits. It’s unlikely that individuals are going to hand coat silver gelatin paper and it’s even more unlikely that they will make their own film.

JK: We will have to look at pictures differently for silver to become do-it-yourself process. The silver gelatin aesthetic today is based on the perfection of the media; not one tiny flaw is acceptable. In platinum and carbro and other hand-coated processes, tiny flaws are not only acceptable, they’re welcome; they celebrate the hand-finished nature of the process.

JPC: And yet, the world of photography has never done this as much as the world of painting. In the world of two-dimensional art, media have always reflected upon and intersected with other media. Dad and Ansel complained that silver paper was getting worse. It’s been the opposite for me. Digital printing has gotten significantly better every few years. Chemical media were comparatively consistent. Dad’s been printing with one medium his entire life. I’ve used three different media in fifteen years. This presents new opportunities and challenges for inventorying and editioning.

JK: In photography there is usually an aesthetic associated with a process; that may get lost as the processes become more mechanical. It’s easy to focus on the bits and bytes.

JPC: Ansel said, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept.” While he was the primary creator of it, Ansel’s work wasn’t about the Zone System. He was a transcendentalist photographer. He was interested in a particular kind relationship with nature and light. I like it when somebody has something to say, not just clever craft. The world is full of beautifully polished nothings. Not focusing on the bits and bytes is what makes my Photoshop book different from most of the others. It’s about thinking. It outlines the progression of thought. It’s version agnostic. I didn’t want to sell people the same content twice. If I have something new to say, I’ll add it. But there’s no new edition just because there’s a new version of the software. That doesn’t mean the book is obsolete, far from it. A lot of the techniques found in it were developed with an eye towards the past, by looking back at how people throughout the history of photography solved problems that are still with us today: dynamic range, depth of field, focus, noise, etc – the essentials.

JK: You were a painter, went to Camden and saw potential. What did you do to make it real? Did you immediately want to make a career out of it? Were you sure you could make a career out of it?

JPC: I was a visual artist. It was the right media for me. At CCS, I decided on a career in digital fine art photography, even though nobody knew what that was. Initially, it was hard to find a venue for it and the medium was not accepted. People were fascinated by the novelty of the medium. They would even say that digital technology was the future of photography. But nobody wanted to put their money where their mouth was.

JK: There were permanence issues.

JPC: There were. But, the dye sublimation prints and Iris prints of the time lasted at least as long as many of the accepted Kodak C Prints. In order for digital processes to be accepted they had to surpass rather than equal traditional processes. Digital photography has been subjected to an enormous amount of scrutiny, not undue scrutiny, but all the other processes should be subjected to the same level of scrutiny. There’s hardly a gallery show that I have that somebody doesn’t show up with a loupe looking at dot structure, but they don’t feel they have to look at the grain structure of platinum or silver. I appreciate inquiry. I appreciate individual biases. If somebody celebrates the particular aspects of one medium, that’s wonderful. I mind prejudice against alternatives. It’s prejudice that I’ve been working to disrupt. My career has involved a constant process of educating various sectors of the photographic world: the general public, practicing photographers, journalists and critics, dealers, curators, and collectors.

JK: Let’s turn to your workshops. How many students do you usually have?

JPC: Six to twelve. When groups are larger than twelve, it’s becomes more difficult to give the individual contact needed to make a significant impact.

JK: What’s the level of the student? Is it quite varied?

JPC: Over the years, it has been. It’s getting higher and higher. It’s a significant commitment to take one of my workshops – tuition, travel, room, board, and time away from work or family. My students are committed. They’re there 100% of the time, prepared, and hungry for more. I appreciate that. I can give more and at a higher level.

JK: Do you get students of all ages?

JPC: I don’t get many young people. It’s probably their ability to afford workshops. It’s not really more expensive than a course at a university but there aren’t scholarships, student loans, or familial subsidies. Sometimes, you can make the biggest contributions when working with young people. On the other hand, those with more experience and wherewithal may be in a position to do more with it. Lectures and seminars at universities and tradeshows offer me an opportunity to interact and share with younger artists.

JK: Do you ever get to do your own work on your workshops?

JPC: Rarely. I’m there for my students. That said, it helps refine my craft and provides interesting insights and stimulus. There have been exceptions. I went to Antarctica this year, on a cruise ship. There were 50 photographers and five teachers: Michael Reichmann, Stephen Johnson, Jeff Schewe, Seth Resnick, and me. It was wonderful to see how differently everybody approached photography. Michael is a classic handheld landscape photographer. Stephen is a classic large format landscape photographer. Seth is a dynamic small format photographer who explores every subject and every angle—he would shove himself in crevasse, stick his camera in a steam vent or behind the icicles. Jeff is a commercial advertising photographer, who’s spent more and more of his time in software development and recently started a blog; who literally shoots from the hip as well as the eye. I’m a fine artist with a background in painting and writing. I came on the board with sketches and notes and continued making them on site and afterwards. There was one day where I decided I had reached a certain saturation level and I needed to collect myself and my impressions. Instead of going to shore, I went down below and I wrote an essay. It was fascinating to see everyone else’s photographs of the same place. We were all using the same equipment, in the same place, at the same time. There were obvious similarities, but there were also big differences. When other people saw my images, they often asked me, “Where were you?” It’s wonderful to see through other people’s eyes. I was introduced to Antarctica when my mother helped produce Eliot Porter’s book, Antarctica. Eliot was very influential for me, both as a photographer and as a person. He went down there in his late 70’s or early 80’s. A freak wave dropped the boat out from under him; he broke his collarbone, fell in the water, and got hypothermia. They had to ship him back. But he went right back the next year. It was wonderful to see how vital he was.

JK: You’ve always been environmentally oriented. How do you use your photography to further environmental causes?

JPC: If people see my work and say they’ve been inspired to pursue their own unique, creative path and make their own conscientious, creative contributions, my prayers will be answered. Mission accomplished. Wastelands (full of water – oceans – without water – deserts), global warming, and overpopulation are always issues on my mind. I’ve been looking for ways to dissolve the perceived separation between the environment and us. We are a part of the environment. We shape our environments. We create environments, both physical and cultural. We’re not separate. Nature is the matrix from which we are born, which sustains us while we live, and which we return to when we die. I love Lovelock’s Gaia Theory. I also like his response. Certain segments of the ecology movement asked him to be a spokesperson for them. He told them their approach was too polarized and that they were framing the argument inaccurately. Industry is not inherently blind to these issues or unsustainable, only our current practices are. We’re not talking about saving the environment. If we bring about an ecological catastrophe and our own extinction, nature will reassert itself. What we’re talking about is our own self-interest. The issues and the agendas need to be reframed, and they need to become central to our culture. I hope to be a part of that. Is there a use for non-localized, subjective, altered environmental art? More recently, I’ve been considering producing documentary bodies of work in parallel with the kind of work I’m known for.

JK: How much time do you spend on the road now?

JPC: A lot of time, recently. It comes in waves. The Epson Print Academy has got me going out a couple of times a month. There’s a lot of lecturing during the school year for Canon and Epson at universities. There are trade shows. Luckily, almost all my workshops are in my studio.

JK: You approach digital photography with respect for the traditions developed when the technology was chemistry.

JPC: I speak photographers’ language. For many people that’s a new thing in the digital arena. I refer to the history of photography and the larger history of art to provide a useful context for understanding and applying photographic tools. People who have experience in one discipline can make quantum leaps in another if they transpose their existing knowledge base. Digital photography doesn’t have to be a different photography. Digital techniques can simply be another set of tools.

JK: Almost anything you do in Photoshop there were ways to do before, but they were so time-consuming and required so much skill that few bothered.

JPC: Because they’re so hard to make, how many people actually used traditional contrast masks? This afternoon I’ll show people how to make one in six seconds; people use them routinely now.

JK: What are your students’ most common deficiencies?

JPC: That depends on which workshop or seminar we’re discussing. The workshop that’s most popular is my Fine Digital Print workshop. Color management challenges people who are more intuitive and process oriented because it’s highly technical and you have to approach it analytically. Without being simplistic, I make it simple and practical. I use Chromix ColorThink to show people that color is three-dimensional. When they see their images graphed they understand. We take a balloon, blow it up. Let some air out. This is gamma compression. Let it go flying. This is color without color management. We also need to manage expectations. The whole industry has not managed expectations for color management well. It promises “what-you-see-I-what-you-get” for $100 at the push a button. Color management doesn’t provide WSYWIG. It offers sophisticated predictions of inevitable transformations of color and ways to control those transformations as images are remediated.

JK: When I was doing research on color management, I’d describe the problem to people and they’d say, “Can this be done?” I‘d say no, but as far as I was concerned, that made it a perfect research project. Nobody will ever solve it. How would you like to wake up one morning and read that somebody had solved the problem you’d spent years on, and you were out of a job? We can always find ways to make it better but it’s just not possible to perfect it.

JPC: Thank God it’s come so far so fast.

JK: What else gives your students trouble?

JPC: Having reasonable expectations. It helps to start with a good photograph. It’s not garbage in garbage out. It’s garbage in, highly polished garbage out. I recommend using Photoshop as surgeon’s scalpel not as a sledgehammer. The curves tools is challenging. It scares people but it’s the heart of controlling tonal structure. Once you learn it, it’s extraordinarily easy, powerful, and precise. People also feel uncertain about masking. Again, this can be learned quickly and it’s extraordinarily powerful. After a half day session I tell students, “You’re officially dangerous – to your time and your images. Before you start using the really sophisticated tools, see if a simpler approach won’t do it.” Practice Zen and the art of Photoshop. Keep it simple. Learning what to do (not how to do it) and when to stop are the hardest things of all.

JK: Do you have people bring in portfolios for evaluation?

JPC: Always. Individual work is central to the dialog. Depending on the workshop, we spend from a five minutes to an hour on portfolios, either as a group or one-on-one.

JK: That’s a way to get people away from the technical minutiae.

JPC: Some people become addicted to tools and technique. While they’re useful and easier to address, it helps a great deal to ask, “Why are you doing this? What does Photoshop hold for you?” Mastery involves having an area of focus and knowing it well. It’s not about knowing everything generally. People who know everything in the interface are scary. Have you seen the images they create? I think we need more from the educational institutions: learning to look, learning to look more precisely, visual thinking. It can be practiced, learned and refined. That’s one of the things I love most about looking at somebody else’s work. You learn to see the world in different ways. We’re all teaching each other.

JK: You’ve had an association with Epson that’s been successful for both of you.

JPC: Epson has been a very responsive company. Of all the companies I’ve beta tested for, they’ve listened the most and took the advice that I gave them to heart. In some cases they’ve exceeded my requests and expectations. There’s a reason more people use them. The quality is excellent. They make the best ink on the planet right now. Their recent profiles are the best shipped by any manufacturer to date. There are still many things to improve and advances to make but the fact that we’ve got inkjet prints outperforming traditional color prints by a mile is really exciting.

JK: Where do you think printing is going?

JPC: Who can say? Refractive polymers are interesting. A butterfly’s wings or a hummingbird’s feathers are a bright color because they refract the light not because they contain pigment.

JK: And capture?

JPC: Still images may become an anomaly. The standard may be moving pictures. The decisive moment may be determined not at the moment of it happens but long after the fact. Frame it, record it, decide later. Similarly, quiet images may wane. Sound may become more prominent.

JK: Publishing?

JPC: We’ve only barely begun to see the effect of digital publishing. I see the waning of print as a mass medium in the near future. There will be new opportunities for publishing. All kinds of content will proliferate, if it can become visible and deliver a monetary stream to support its creation. Once bandwidth is no longer an issue, culture will be different.

JK: The object becomes less important, maybe completely unimportant, if we’re just shipping bits around. If you are thinking of an environment where your image is going to appear on many different settings, different sizes, you have to think about what you need to do to it to make it look the best in each of those settings.

JPC: There’s an interesting book that discusses this called Remediation.The idea is that, as media evolves it not only changes culture it also changes the way we use preexisting media. The effect of mediation and remediation of content is profound. I disagree with McLuhan; the media is not the message. Media mediates. It’s a translation. Electronic migration of content has been approached from the wrong angle. Many simply want the digital to be a substitute for the physical. It’s better to use the new media to its fullest potential rather than asking it to imitate a preexisting standard. Maybe digital doesn’t mean ephemeral. Maybe it can mean durable and interconnected. Maybe our art forms will become more durable and connected. Maybe art and the creative process become an integral part of our lives and we collaborate and create on a daily or even moment to moment basis.

JK: What’s the fate of the object in an era when most media is delivering bits?

JPC: Objects become more rarified. Books become collectible commodities. Did you see that article in PDN this spring on Richard Prince’s $1.2 million Cowboy, an appropriated Marlboro ad in an edition of two huge prints? Everybody was excited that a photograph had sold for that much but the other thing to take note of is the general trend in market towards smaller editions, larger prints, and higher prices.

JK: I have mixed feelings about editions. I’m glad to see photographs valued highly but I think of photography as a democratic medium. Why not have a thousand prints of a great image?

JPC: Open editions are a nice idea but I’m not sure how practical the idea of keeping prices low to make images accessible is. Can artists and dealers survive on a 50% cut of a $750 to $1000 item? That implies volume that few achieve. Artists want to share their work with other people. Are there additional ways of making work accessible and venues for that?

JK: We talked about where things were going from a technical point of view and you gave me some eye opening answers. Where are we going from an aesthetic point of view? It seems like people are taking vastly different aesthetic approaches. Is it too early to see any organizing principle to it?

JPC: In the twentieth century things got more and more diverse. I don’t think that trend is going to go away. The crisis of our culture right now is finding a culture. It’s particularly true for Americans. A culture of highly diverse migrants faces many challenges. How do we deal with identity as we savor new freedoms? How do we form consensus while celebrating diversity? Polarization keeps us from moving forward on core issues.

JK: And electronic collaboration may help?

JPC: I think Friedman’s The World is Flat offers a couple of the keys: collaborating remotely and collaborating independently. To one degree or another, we all collaborate remotely. You are not in sync (in place or time) with your collaborators. Collaborating independently is a fascinating new concept. In some cases, you don’t even know who you are collaborating with. We might find new types of communities, new ways of interacting and staying in touch with one another. It’s already happening. On sites like Flickr the product is the contributions of all the members who sign up. That’s fascinating. It may hold some of the seeds of how we form consensus. Unless we find consensus around core issues, we can’t act effectively. In the face of issues like AIDS in Africa, desertification, overpopulation, global warming, and the merger of world economies we can’t afford not to act quickly, decisively, and effectively.

JK: Where did you get your passion for the environment?

JPC: I’ve always had it. My family fostered a deep appreciation for nature. I’ve met other remarkable individuals who share these concerns. Eliot was a big influence on me. I remember visiting him in the hospital in New York after he’d had surgery. The nurse said, “Five minutes, maybe 10.” Eliot grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let me go. We sat there for an hour and a half. Elliot was so vital. He couldn’t walk his five miles a day. He was going out of his mind sitting still in this room, so he was delighted to have somebody to talk to. He started off with a story about being a boy in Illinois and the gas lamps on the street that were lit every night and there were four model T cars in town. At the end of the conversation we had talked about satellites, two world wars, genetic engineering, and personal computing. I said, “Eliot, your generation is absolutely extraordinary. You’ve seen so much change in a single lifetime.” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’ll see more.” I left with a very uneasy feeling. It was the early 80’s and nuclear winter was very much on all of our minds.

On another night, when we agreed that desertification and overpopulation were the critical issues of our time, Eliot said, “It’s going to be your generation that decides whether we’re going to leave a habitable environment to future generations or not.” It probably isn’t a coincidence that I’m obsessed with water and the lack of it. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I make images of unpeopled wastelands. I favor synchronicity over coincidence. We define ourselves, in part, by how we react to our influences. There have been and are many influences for me. In turn, we may have a positive influence on our total environment. I hope that I have that privilege.

Younger generations feel overwhelmed, as well they should. Nuclear winter may have receded to the background but not nuclear proliferation. Global warming is finally receiving the attention it deserved decades ago. Weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable. Temperatures are rising. The ice caps have shrunk 50% in the past twenty years. Deserts are expanding. These trends are accelerating. We’re not sure we can slow global warming down. We may have reached a tipping point.

The Everglades I knew as a boy are gone, but many species are making a tremendous comeback. There’s a notion of preservation in the ecological movement I appreciate, but let’s leave it a little room for growth as well. Even if we lock it up and leave it alone, we can’t stop it from changing; I don’t think that’s even a desirable goal. We can consider other ways of interacting with it; acknowledging our impact, accepting our responsibilities, and engaging it creatively and conscientiously. I think Eden can be restored, if we give it half a chance. I think there is hope.

Beauty reminds us there is hope. Beauty sustains us. Beauty restores us. The world is extraordinarily beautiful.

Today, the potential for disaster is extraordinary and the potential for positive change is extraordinary as well. Look at how much change we’ve seen. Look at how much change we’ve caused. The human spirit is extraordinarily creative. We can harness that creativity and work together to produce positive results. Consider the alternatives.