Insight: Unlocking the Secrets of the Creative Process

By Eric Meola   Tuesday September 9, 2014

At a recent workshop in Maine, the noted National Geographic photographer Sam Abell asked his students to photograph a poem—to illustrate the words with images. Abell wanted the students to think about the relationship between two methods of describing imagery, and the challenges posed by interpreting words and images in our minds through photography. The dichotomy between words and images has haunted me throughout my career, and then a few months ago, a nearly 200-page PDF attachment of an e-book called Process arrived in my email as a gift from photographer-lecturer-educator John Paul Caponigro—or JP, as his friends call him. I glanced at a few pages, then put it aside on my computer’s desktop to look at later. I had met JP on several occasions—first in California before we were both scheduled to do lectures, and then again in Iceland, Antarctica and the Atacama desert while participating in Digital Photo Destinations workshops. I had only a few sketchy things to go on—that JP had graduated from Yale, that his father was the photographer Paul Caponigro, that he had grown up in New Mexico, and that he took a few weeks off to go to Italy every year.

So one day, when I got a call from my somewhat inebriated photographer-friend Arthur Meyerson and an equally inebriated JP as they joyfully celebrated the close of a Maine Photo Workshop, I told JP that I had not only read Process but that I wanted to interview him about it. I had a lot of questions: How was his famous father? Did his mother really design Ernst Haas’s book The Creation? And most importantly, what the hell was Process really about? After all, we live in the age of iPhone photography, when nearly 300 million photographs are uploaded to Facebook every 24 hours. 

In the book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, critic Greil Marcus describes the process that led to Dylan’s collection of more than 100 mostly unreleased songs; the music evolved from—in Marcus’s words—“a laboratory where, for a few months, certain bedrock strains of American cultural language were retrieved and reinvented.” Few photography workshops explore the creative aspects of photography as a constantly evolving set of inputs—reading, writing, sketching—that manifest themselves in the way we make images. I recognized that many of my inputs had much in common with what JP was discussing, but I wanted to know more about him and why he always seemed to be “looking away” from the image in front of us. Or was he?

Our conversation, which begins below, took place over an extended period via email, while JP was with his family in Italy.


EM: I’m fascinated by your approach to seeing, to “living” photography, which you refer to as “process.”  

JP: Art arises out of a life lived—it’s an extension of ourselves, our creative process grows and changes as we do. Art is not something separate from life. Art intensifies life.  Some cultures don’t have a word for art, considering the items/events produced that we might call art to be an overflowing of life. Seen from that perspective, everyone is an artist. So the follow-up questions would be: What kind of artist and how well do they do it?

EM: Your father is Paul Caponigro, a master landscape and still-life photographer. He once said, “It's one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it's another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” That applies to all photography, doesn’t it—from landscapes to journalistic images to portraits?

JP: Exactly. Representation is not reproduction. We make portraits of people by recording light reflecting on their bodies—often only a portion of their bodies, usually from one angle and at one moment in time. Does such an image record their changing state through time, their history, their web of relationships, their ideas, their feelings, etc? It’s important to recognize the limited nature of our creations. In representation. it’s important to recognize the gap between what we create and what’s referenced. This doesn’t make these types of images less valuable; for many people they’re the most valuable. Perhaps those limitations can be used for effect?

I spoke about this when talking about a book that is very influential to me—Jamake Highwater’s The Primal Mind. Listen to it here (under “Voice”).

EM: You recently did a print “pair” with your dad, who lives with you. His image "Galaxy Apple" is one of my favorites. How is he, and how much did he influence your own way of thinking about images?

JP: Dad’s “Galaxy Apple” is one of my favorite photographs, too. Its ability to speak both literally and metaphorically at the same time is one of the possibilities photography presents that fascinates me most, and it influenced my decision to become involved in the medium.

Dad’s influence on me as a person and an artist has been tremendous. How could it not be? He’s my father! In addition to influencing the course of my early life, presenting many interesting experiences, and influencing my world-view, he’s always been available personally, generous with his knowledge, and supportive of me as an artist. He’s an exceptionally sensitive human being. Among many other things, I appreciate his independent spirit, his unconventional thinking, and how willing he is to chart his own course. Without the influence of both of my parents I doubt I’d be as interested in spirituality, comparative mythology, relationships between man and nature, and music.

At 82 dad’s sharp and active. And yes, he’s still working—we’re going to do another print pair together soon.

EM: Your mother, Eleanor, was also an influence, I presume—after all, she designed the most influential book of photography ever—Ernst Haas’s The Creation. You must have been four or five years old at the time … did you meet Haas at that early age? What was it like to grow up in a world of art?

JP: Most people don’t know how big an influence my mother has been to me. She’s been as strong an influence on me—both as a person and as an artist—as my father. She was the painter in the family and started me drawing. She kindled my interest in “sacred” geometry and numerology. She taught me most of what I know about offset reproduction, which helped me tremendously in making the transition to digital printing and in consulting for corporations producing printers. She laid the foundations of my understanding for graphic design. She showed me the power of editing and sequencing images, by helping many artists select, sequence, reproduce and present their images. She showed me the contributions a second pair of eyes can make to artistic growth. Shall I continue?

        "Constellation VI," by John Paul Caponigro

My parents’ very different interests in and uses of language sparked an interest in verbal communication and writing. Their very different sensibilities for music displayed personal voice. I experienced both of these on an almost daily basis.

As I’m writing this, a pattern in our family of artists has become clearer to me! All of us didn’t pursue careers in other arts, despite a lot of dedication to them. Mom didn’t pursue a career in painting; she became a graphic designer. My father didn’t pursue a career in music; he became a photographer. I didn’t pursue sequential art—filmmaking and graphic novels. Or did I in an entirely different way than I was thinking? 

There are so many benefits to making the visual verbal. I wrote about that in this blog post: "Making the Visual Verbal"

EM: You grew up in New Mexico, among other places, and as a child you met Brett and Cole Weston, Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. Can you tell us a little about that? Did you have any sense of who they were?

JP: I was born in Boston, and my family moved to Ireland for a year when I was two.  Some of my earliest memories are when dad began to photograph megalithic monuments there. Then, after five years in the Connecticut woods, we moved to the high deserts of New Mexico—first to Pojaque (I went from a school where there were two African-American kids to one where there were two Caucasian kids…the rest were Hispanic and Native-American) and then to Tesuque, near Santa Fe.

Santa Fe was the kind of place where you’d walk into a restaurant and see a Navajo medicine man sitting with a Spanish rancher, an Impressionist painter, and a nuclear physicist—today you have to add a Tibetan monk into the mix. After a great private high school, Santa Fe Preparatory School, I attended Yale University and later the University of California at Santa Cruz; in addition to a great education, I got a great education in education. After college I moved near the Maine Photographic Workshops, not realizing that Kodak would soon set up The Center For Creative Imaging nearby and that as an artist in residence I would experience a dream come true—Photoshop. Many years earlier, while my mother was overseeing the production of Eliot Porter’s Intimate Landscapes book, I was shown a Scitex machine, which my mother called “a million-dollar coloring book.” I whispered under my breath, “What if an artist got hold of one of these? I wish I had one!” That wish came true. We traveled a lot and I met a lot of interesting people—that was as much a part of my education as my formal education.

As the son of two parents involved in different but related aspects of the art world, I’ve had meetings with many remarkable men and women. I met all of the people you mentioned and many more. Not all of them were famous. Many people wouldn’t recognize the names of people I met who were very influential to the photography community. Our family of artists would visit artists, curators, dealers, and publishers—or they’d visit us.

When I was very young, I had no idea how other people regarded these people. When I was a kid accompanying my father when he taught in Yosemite, I knew Ansel Adams made beautiful photographs and played the piano beautifully, but to me Ansel Adams was really cool because he had a three-legged dog named “Tripod,” even cooler because he had a tiny adorable wife who often seemed like a fairy-tale character, cooler still because he had his own gallery and workshop program in Yosemite National Park, and the coolest guy on the planet because they told me he had a stick he used for controlling the clouds—that is until I couldn’t find a cloud stick in his camera bag like they said. My appreciation for him deepened when I was older and began to understand how much he did to help other artists and the environment.

As I grew older, I began to realize other people looked at and treated these people differently. Often they treated my father differently; sometimes acted differently. I’ve witnessed a lot of inflated behavior. It’s rarely pretty.

For the most part, my parents didn’t change the way they related to people of notoriety—and neither did I. As a result, I’ve got a somewhat different relationship to celebrity. While I’m interested in what fame does to people’s behavior, fame doesn’t change the way I think and feel about them.

I’ve seen people change their behavior because they became famous. I sympathize, but I don’t respect it. I do respect people who attain fame and don’t let it go to their head. Fame can take a terrible toll on people and the people around them, especially their families. It even takes its toll on people who react to fame in inflated ways. To some, it can be a sign of respect and a relief to stop the nonsense and just be real. While I wish success for everyone, I wouldn’t wish celebrity on anyone. Or rather, I wish our culture’s reactions to fame would mature. I celebrate examples of people using their notoriety conscientiously.

To me, while she’s one of my favorite painters, Georgia O’Keeffe was a grouchy old bat who told me her dogs liked only her (after I’d been licked for hours waiting for my mom to finish working with her). But, aside from being very talented, she was also very intelligent, and I gave her lots of brownie points for recognizing, respecting, and valuing my mother’s talents and contributions when they worked together on projects.

I was deeply impressed by Eliot Porter, who worked with my mother on many projects. He was a Harvard-trained microbiologist who was influenced by Thoreau and who devoted his life to the visual arts. He could speak well about almost any subject (science, politics, business) but not art. That an important elderly person would go out of his way to affectionately challenge a teenager like me, sometimes taking a devil’s advocate position to do it, and expect me to support my ideas well, showing me that we didn’t have to agree to respect one another, was just one of many life-lessons I learned from him.

EM: Why do you think Porter couldn’t speak well about art, of all subjects? Was he uncomfortable discussing art, or photography in particular?  Or was it a subject that transcended discussion in some way?

JP: I found Eliot’s limited ability to discuss art mysterious. (Add to this mystery, his wife was a painter, and two of his three sons became artists—one a sculptor and one a painter.) He was so articulate! He would talk about technique, but not about aesthetics. If I had to guess, I would say he was comfortable discussing anything that related to his substantial scientific training while he was largely self-taught in the arts and so reticent to go further there, but then he wasn’t trained in political science and he was eager to discuss politics. Perhaps, he felt the subject of art was too subjective to make rigorously supported arguments? I’m theorizing here. Related to this mystery was watching him work with my mother to select and sequence his images. He could make photographs (boy could he!). I think he made images intuitively. But he had a hard time evaluating them after they were made. I think developing a stronger capacity to make verbal statements about art would have helped him in those areas.

        "Incubation II," by John Paul Caponigro

One of the most important things I learned from all these meetings with remarkable men and women was that that all had their own sensibilities. Some of these people used the same tools but they made very different things with them. That’s inspiring! This is particularly true with photography, which whether chemical or digital is so technological. My father and I would photograph the same things side-by-side using the same tools and make different images. That’s one of my other essential fascinations with photography. How does that happen? It’s a profound mystery. And it’s wonderful!

EM: There is a part of me that rejects “process,” that wants to embrace Weegee’s quote about “f/8 and be there.”  Yet I realize Weegee had his own process, whether it was simply his approach, his philosophy, his own notebooks, sketches, thoughts, or ideas. I think many photographers just pick up a camera and start shooting. The writer Barry Lopez once tried to be a photographer and gave up. In an essay in his book About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, he examines the dichotomy between words and images. My favorite part of your book Process is the chapter titled “Write,” in which you discuss titles, poetry, associations and quotes. Why are words so important to photography and to our visual language? 

JP: Isn’t it interesting that this question even needs to be asked? What aspects of photographers want to be non-verbal? When is being non-verbal productive and when is it counterproductive? Other members or our photography community are highly verbal—editors, publishers, dealers, curators, and critics. The fact that the producers in the photographic community are the ones who are the least well equipped to use language productively has consequences.

Words can be powerful tools. Think of all the things you can do with words. Generate ideas. Clarify a response. Determine a goal. Frame a question. Evaluate strengths and weaknesses. Make comparisons and contrasts. Identify an influence. Select an approach. Test a theory. Explore alternatives. Identify what’s missing. Solve a problem. Advocate. Motivate. Evaluate. Find a new direction.

No matter what discipline you’re in, why wouldn’t you use these powerful tools we call words? Try not using them! Can you? So why not use them well and unlock as much of their power as you can?

Many linguists have explored how language influences thought, going almost as far as saying language is thought. Benjamin Whorf said, “Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a framework for it.” If a culture has a lot of words for something, it indicates those people have a highly developed relationship with it. If a culture doesn’t have a word for something, it indicates either a very different relationship to a subject or a blind spot. Certain tribes in the Amazon jungle have many words for green, but none for blue. The Inuit have dozens of words for snow. We currently have too few words for photography. (At best, we amend the word photography with other words—photojournalism and photo illustration.) Look at all the words we have for various kinds of writing: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose, journalism, journaling, interview, biography, autobiography, screenplay, short story, novel, trilogy, epic, lyric, etc, etc, etc. The photographic community and culture at large would do well to repurpose many words drawn from our literary traditions and use them in our visual traditions.

The question is not, “Should I manipulate a photograph?” Since the invention of photography, all kinds of things have been done to photographs. The question is, “What happens when I do or don’t manipulate a photograph?”

Limited language wastes time and results in less productive debates and diverts attention away from more productive discussions. One of the fundamental things I’m trying to address through my work is complicated by limited language. Our culture often talks about people versus nature; we use words like “us” and “it.” We draw lines and take sides. Our current use of language psychologically distances us. This makes it harder to describe people as parts of nature. If we enter that mindset, we think about ourselves and act in our world differently.


The exhibition “Paul Caponigro and John Paul Caponigro: Generations” will be on view at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, Virginia from September 27 through March 28, 2015.

Photographer Eric Meola is a recipient of the 2014 George Eastman “Power of the Image Award.” His latest book is “India: In Word and Image” (Revised and Updated, 2013).












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