Posts tagged “Paul Caponigro

Paul Caponigro’s Sacred Calling

(All photos by Paul Caponigro)

“I think the first step is the realization that each of us has [a calling]. And then we must look back over our lives and look at some of the accidents and curiosities and oddities and troubles and sicknesses and begin to see more in those things than we saw before. It raises questions, so that when peculiar little accidents happen, you ask whether there is something else at work in your life. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an out-of-body experience during surgery, or the sort of high-level magic that the new age hopes to press on us. It’s more a sensitivity, such as a person living in a tribal culture would have: the concept that there are other forces at work. A more reverential way of living.” – James Hillman

Hillman in The Soul’s Code fleshes out the idea of the acorn theory or acorn myth. This is the idea that each of us has within us the kernel of a calling, a gift, a way of being that grows into maturity much like an acorn grows into an oak. It is an effort to explain what drives each of us to live the lives we feel compelled to live beyond the deterministic boundaries of genetics or social conditioning. In his book he gives examples of how this can be seen in the lives of several well known public figures like Judy Garland or Martin Scorcese.

Paul Caponigro, who would become an accomplished musician and photographer, as a child began to exhibit clues as to what this ‘calling’ would look like for him. Caponigro – “My father’s brother was a pianist. And so when we went to visit the relatives, I could not wait until Dad brought us to Uncle Jimmy’s. And he’d open the door and greet us, and I would run right through his legs – I was quite small – and sit at the piano, knowing he would play eventually. And so I’d wait until he played. I couldn’t wait to hear it, you know, because the piano meant something. This is age 3, 4, 5, thereabouts. I knew there was something in the piano for me.”

Sometimes a mentor appears, as in the story of the Hero’s Journey, to help guide or to give one tools so that you will succeed on your mission. Sometimes this mentor is a parent. Many times it is a teacher, as Hillman recounts in the lives of James Baldwin or Truman Capote. Caponigro remembers one man who noticed his latent talent. Regarding his parents,”They were very hard-working peasant types. And it was more [of] keeping a family together and making a living. There wasn’t enough time and space for them to look a little bit deeper, you know. It just was a major outer structure they were trying to keep together. And they did a fabulous job. They took care of us. They gave us love. They gave us a house to live in. You know, I mean, they really did well. But the subtler things of seeing a little deeper, that was seen by Arthur Gavin, who lived across the street with the principal of the high school. They eventually married. He was the art director for that city, the city of Revere. And he caught on that there was something going on with me. And he would feed me paper and colored crayons and pencils and inks and, you know, tell me to have a good time. And he’d do it in front of my mother, who didn’t understand what was going on, wouldn’t have seen that I had an artistic nature, and that it was supposed to have an outlet. So he caught on that there was something going on, and he tried to help my artistic nature.”

This inner calling can sometimes be so strong that it can filter out other responsibilities. What society deems successful can, to this calling, be seen as a failure (or vice versa), or at the least a major conflict. Caponigro – “I was poking around the photo supply stores, and I’d look in the shop windows. I’d go in and just look at things…in those early years, I was not interested in school. I did not want to do the work…I…could not wait for the bell to ring to dismiss us, and I would head out, not go home but go straight to the ocean, which was very close by, or the woods, and hang out there and listen to the birds and watch the waves come in and pick up shells. At an early age, I realized nature was my teacher. I didn’t want all the reading and arithmetic. I couldn’t give it my interest. So nature was really my teacher all through school, up to must have been the eighth grade. At which point I remember coming back from one of my forays to the sea – – – I remember coming back from being in nature, picking up some shells, get some stones. And I was passing right through the school yard where I was going to school, on the football field. And I was stopped dead with a realization: I had to get a camera and photograph this stuff that I see out there in nature…”

Caponigro discovered that his emotional reaction to certain kinds of music or to what he saw in nature was going to be his guide. “[It is] as if the cosmos itself arranged that I would not be a good student in school…in order that the emotional realm that I worked with would flourish and develop…I saw it as a gift that I did not do well in school… in that the excessive intellectual activity subdued my emotional activity. I saw that my emotional activity could get fed and would function quite easily, and was very perceptive that my emotions would do the perceiving. When that happened and I got information, I always felt confident about what that information was…”

At one point he became aware of who he was and what he wanted to do. “In the same way that I got this burst that said, get a camera and photograph what you’re seeing and what you’re working with…In the same way – it was at the age of 11 or thereabouts – I was walking the streets alone. Came from the center of town to go home. And I remember exactly the corner that I turned to get up the street. And again, this burst of something came in and said, oh, my God. I’m an artist. I recognized that I was an artist. And I had a double kind of whammy which said, what a wonderful thing and what a responsibility, the two of them simultaneously. I go, wow. What am I going to do with this? I’m an artist.”

So the choice becomes a question of what is this life going to look like. How does one honor the gift one has been given. How do you stay true to the calling. Caponigro – “So it didn’t take too long for me to realize, no. You know, I don’t want to go through what these concert pianists go through. Sure, I’d love to play at Carnegie Hall, and I’d love to thrill a big audience, and that would all be great. And to this day, I could still think of doing that. But I realized that that turning of the corner when I was 11 years old and saying, my God, I’m an artist, and the other half that said, it’s a responsibility, not merely a joy, and that part really was connected to the idea that art was a sacred act. It wasn’t until I had studied more and more of the Egyptian art and early ancient works in the museums, and certain of the modern pieces that you could tell were permeated with a man’s soul and real being – it wasn’t until then that I thought, my God, yes. This is – this could be a man’s religion. It did not have to be the organized religion of those structures and burning candles and incense and the rituals and the ceremonies. This could be a path to sacred experience.”

Paul Caponigro – Stonehenge

Excerpt from an Oral history interview with Paul Caponigro, 1999 Jul. 30-1999 Aug. 12, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

“I knew that the forces of nature were a language, was a way of life, could inform you. In other words, nature really was my teacher right from the beginning. And something happened in my life that related me to stone in particular – which I wasn’t aware of; I just loved stone. I loved the form, the shape, the texture, the arrangements. And in working with that with my camera, a very powerful impression came from a particular photograph of stone. And as with these poor mystics who are – you know, they’re infected with the devil; stuff comes at them, in them, through them. But this impression arrived, and it caused a set of words to rise in my mind. And it said, teachings from the ancient fathers. Here I am looking at a photograph I made of a stone wall, and I’m hearing the words, teachings from the ancient fathers.”

“…Then I saw – as we were doing research about whether we would go to Ireland or not, I saw photographs of certain kinds of stones. And I thought…there were the dolmans and Stonehenge and similar sites. And I thought, oh, yes. Yes. There’s something in there.”

“I started in Ireland. I was actually going to do the high cross and the churches and the Celtic Christianity. But when I saw my first set of stones in the land, I thought, oh, my God. I was bewitched. Something snapped, and I blindly just went for them. I thought, you know, the more I address them, the more I’m with them, the more I could possibly understand.

“…they had to put a fence around it by – I think it was 1977 is when they put up the fence because between ’74, ’75, and ’77, there was a great deal of vandalism. A lot of hippies thought that they should take it over. There was a lot of activity, and resentment that they were not allowed…to play latter day Druids…they wanted association, these people, with the sites. They were denied it by the keepers all. And so, you know, they would go and spray paint on the damn thing, peace signs and – so they had to fence it off.”

“When I first went there, it was totally – the only device they had – there were no fences, but they had a device where…the ground…surrounding the whole monument, was sensitive to touch. They would switch [it] on in the main guard room. They would switch it on when they left. They’d open the gates at 9:00, switch off the power, and keep it off until 5:00 when they closed the monument officially. Then they’d put on the alarm. If anybody walked within a certain distance of the monument, the alarm would go off and the police would come. So that was the protection they had. Otherwise…you had the open space. And I took advantage of that because I started photographing it in ’67. And I continued photographing it right through ’72. I think my last photographs were in ’77. I made some in ’77 without the fences. I went back every year and spent a few weeks with the place, just photographing it.”

“Well, when did the great Celtic revival come in? I’d say somewhere around the ’70s. The New Age people hooked into the Celtic as being one of the really strong holders of that power of that thinking and idea of Mother Goddess, God being a woman rather than a man, all that kind of stuff, that whole revival of the pagan and Druid thinking. I’d say that is what pulled those stones into focus in the world in general, the realization that…these were power sites. They were places chosen by the ancients who knew what the earth energies were about and would build their sites on particular pieces of land that have that extra strength or energy that could affect a human being.”

“I worked simultaneously not only for what to me was the best facet of that particular stone as a sculptural entity, but also to try to pick up the atmosphere of the groupings of stones. So that was the task I had, which I didn’t realize at the beginning. And I didn’t realize what the hell was happening. You know, my first two years were – I was mystified. But I was also impelled. And as I was working with those stones trying to understand them – and the archeologists were always after me: “What the hell are you doing exactly?” “I don’t know. When I find out, I’ll let you know. I just got a photograph.” And then it hit me, bam, teachings from the ancient fathers. It was a stone wall that gave that phrase to my brain and teased me in my emotions. And when I got to these sites and I was totally caught, and thought, I’m done, I can only follow my instincts here and work, I thought, here, yes, are the teachings from the ancient fathers through stone. I thought that was an interesting dimension, an internal dimension, of…an affirmation of the silent realm informing you and having a validity because you keep running into it.”

“Yes. And in that sense, time is telescoped. The accordion is closed. And I thought that was no different between that time I made the photograph of that rock wall to the time that I recognized that the stone was really the medium and that nature somehow beats out an energy that informs you.”

“You know, when I met those stones, one of them, as I tried to photograph it, you know, leaned forward imperceptibly and said, “What do you want?” It said, “What do you want?” And in it was like two paragraphs: Why that angle? Why this particular place at this time? What is your purpose? What – you know, it just sort of said, what do you want? And I backed off because I knew that I was after a composition. And I had my zone system and I could master the light, whatever the light would be, and blah blah blah, all my rationalizing, intellectualizing, composualizing [sic]. And the stone said, “That’s not what you’re here for.”

“Right. And I left. I just stopped right in my tracks, and I went and had a cup of tea and a pork pie at the stand, and just sort of sat back and thought, well, you’re either going crazy or something’s happening, you know. So I bravely after a few hours went back and very cautiously. What it said was, you know, you’re not here for any of what you know. You’re here to learn. And just bring us your craft. Use it. You’ll be informed as you work. And that’s what was happening. It was like – this was a…very complex design.”

” Well, that’s exactly what the stone was telling me. You know, be careful. We know what you’re here for. All you need to do is keep your craft handy. Your craft is. It does not think, you know. And when you arrive at the state of being an emotional archeologist and not the average archeologist who digs, you are digging emotionally and you will be informed through that realm.”

” …A few of the guards were sensitive to the fact that this kid was not playing around. He’s quite dedicated and serious. Why would he come back so often and – you know, he has that something about him that you know that he’s after something. So they would let me in at 5:00 in the morning. They would turn off the power. I would walk across the lawn leading up to the hedge. And I could work until 9:00 when everyone was allowed to go through the gates. So I had that free time.”

“Then at 5:00, everybody would go home and they would lock the gates to them. But they would leave the power off until I finished my work. And that could be a few hours later. So they allowed me that time extra, without people. And then during the day, I just very carefully and patiently would see that, well, there’s a photograph here. And I would get my camera set up and wait until a group of people were hidden behind the stones and get my exposure, and then they would continue. So a lot of jockeying at that time. But mostly, they allowed me to be there at hours when nobody else was.”

“Oh, it was wonderful. It was wonderful. And I brought back – when it was finished…a portfolio of twelve images of Stonehenge, twelve of what I thought were the best, and I wrote a piece about what I felt there, and I ceremoniously gave it to the head guard that used to take care of Stonehenge, Tom Woodhouse. And he said, “Well, you know, we’ve got this big fence up. But I think this wants to be brought into the center of the stone, so let’s go. Just look for all the world as if you’re an archeologist; behave as if you are, and we’ll step over the fence,” which we did. We went into there and laid it on the center stone, and then we walked it completely around the stones, offered it to Stonehenge, and left it in the guard house. And I said, “This is, you know, for you to share with anybody.” He kept it for a year and said, “It’s too good a piece to be just hanging around here. So I have donated it in your name to the Wiltshire Museum,” which, you know, has done archeological work on all these places… The Wiltshire Museum, which is very – it’s right across from the Salisbury Cathedral.”

“So the stones got me.”


“In my years of photography I have learned that many things can be sensed, seen, shaped or resolved in a realm of quiet, well in advance of, or between, the actual clicking of shutters and the sloshing of films and papers in chemical solutions. I work to attain “a state of heart”, a gentle space offering inspirational substance that could purify one’s vision. Photography, like music, must be born in the unmanifest world of spirit.”