Dark into Light: Photographs by Paul Caponigro

Pucker Gallery
Aug 15, 2016 7:15PM

I am challenged beyond my limits to write about my friend, Paul Caponigro. To borrow from the film Casablanca, this is a man like any other... only, more so. Approachable, modest, earthy. But Paul is no casual observer of things. You feel something of power in his gaze — it is deeper than most, more penetrating.

 At times, I drive north to visit him at his home on a quiet dirt track, tucked into the woods on the mid-coast of Maine. We sit and have coffee, his special blend: a little espresso, a little cinnamon. We converse. 

Soft light pours through the window and onto the table, the coffee cups, and the pastries from a little bakery in nearby Rockland. His home in Cushing, Maine is emblematic of the man. With many windows looking outward into the forest, with wood beams and floors, Paul’s home is filled with the organic. In the main room a large stone fireplace dominates, the pillars at either side resembling a small version of the standing stones of the British Isles, reminiscent of the many that appear in his images. There is a strange combination of spacious elegance, yet everywhere there are things to look at — most often nature-made: shells and pinecones, driftwood and wood-burls, animal skulls and rocks. If a woodland sprite were to design a room, this would be it. And toward the center of it all is a baby grand piano. This is a whole other side of Paul that would require another essay for another time, but it's perhaps too little to say that he is multi-faceted, and I have been fortunate to hear him play.

In the quiet that always seems to weave its way through a conversation with Paul, and under that penetrating gaze, you find yourself wondering if he’s found in you what there may be to find. Perhaps he’s even drawn something out that you had no idea you possessed. It’s hard to know for sure... in many ways he is inscrutable. 

During one of my visits we go for a drive and as the coastal scenery of Maine fills the view, there is no superfluous chitchat. With Paul, things are said that should be said. The unsaid creates a silence that doesn't need to be filled — a silence that feels as if it belongs. He once surprised me with a joke, and since then I know to expect almost anything. He is a charming mix of serious and serene, a sage and an imp. He’s what you’d imagine someone to be who spends as much time as he does observing the world, alive to its forms, parsing its nuances.


In our conversations, his thoughts are expressed clearly and elegantly in a deep voice, but I am drawn to what he holds within, enigmatic. There is depth here and a certain mystery, not just in the man, but in the way he perceives the world. In each of his photographs too, there is always more than what is immediately recognizable upon the surface. It’s often something you can’t quite put your finger on, but the longer you look into one of his images the quieter you become, and the more transfixed.

In Caponigro’s images of Stonehenge and the standing stones of the British Isles, the prints themselves are almost textural in quality. The light is often soft and luminous, caressing the stones and bringing out every curve and character, every weighty nuance. Viewing these images is a rich, full experience. One can imagine the deep silence, feel the soft wind and texture of stone, experience the vast ages, and sense the lingering mystery. You can see that he approaches these places with reverence. These are the works of a person who (as he says), “listens with patience for what might be revealed,” without expectation, and with a mind so open as to be bordering upon the mystical. 

Some of his images act as doorways to sacred spaces. In Stone Arch, Reefert Church (PC120), the composition compels you forward as the ages get peeled back. From under the solid archway you move toward time-crumbled walls. It feels almost risky, but through the doorway you pass to dwell for a moment in the light on the other side. Farther out, the dark wood beckons and the unknown awaits.     


We sometimes enter his images with a bit of caution knowing that we are stepping through to one of the primal layers of the world — into the medieval ruin, the unexplained henge of stone, the possible “tulgey wood.” 

In some of Caponigro’s images there are pathways to follow. In Forest, Northumberland, England (PC123), a long strip of bright sky descends down the middle of the print and appears to rend the forest in two, its light borders made jagged by dark, piney boughs that seem to point the viewer forward, and onward. Beneath, a path narrows out ahead to join with the sky in a small and far off distance. Under the canopy the forest is dark and brooding, yet along the way individual tree trunks seem to light up like fireflies on either side. In its ambiguity this image poses a question; it’s up to the viewer whether or not to venture forth.

In Running Stream, Connemara, Ireland (PC127), flowing water cuts a swath through the dark countryside and heads directly toward the viewer. One’s attention at first travels downward with the flow of water, but it’s the hazy distance at the very top of the image to which we return again and again, as if longing to follow that fragile slip of bright water over the farthest rise and into the deep distance from whence it came. In his image, Caponigro has captured this single moment, and yet has managed to convey a fuller measure of time’s domain: though it's the far and hazy distance toward which you're drawn, it’s the rush of water tumbling at your feet that tells where you are. 



In Abalone Shell, Cushing, ME, (PC110) you feel entire oceans within the shell – the shape of a wave, a fractal of mother ocean’s movements reflected there in luminous silver. Though the image portrays a single shell upon a sea of black-background, the pattern reveals that nothing exists on its own, that everything is connected in mysterious ways. 

In Snapping Turtle, Cushing, ME (PC101), organic forms repeat themselves as they so often do; the points of the turtle’s claws echoed in the pointy ferns, the curving tail and legs amid the curls of grass. In this image there is no moralizing. If any sorrow is expressed, it is tempered by the beauty of form and tone, and by the majesty of existence in all its phases. 

In Caponigro’s images there is an implicit invitation: come in, immerse, revel, seek revelation, and be transported.


As I stand to say goodbye at the end of a visit, I’m struck once again by the quiet serenity of this man. Perhaps it’s because he spends portions of his life looking so deeply into the world he sees, taking time to slowly soak up what the moments have to offer. Or maybe it’s the many hours he spends in a small darkened room under the soft glow of a red light, his negatives made to interact with photographic papers imbued with silver, his hands working their magic in the light between, then slowly rocking long trays of fluid chemical compounds mixed to perfection for the images emerging…

But I think it’s a combination of both. Like the transitions of day into night into day, this traditional photographic cycle requires going outward to commune with the bright world, and later to see that world unfold in your hands, in the dark, to then be brought once more into the light of day — having been filtered slowly through the sensibilities and soul of an artist.

- Alexandra de Steiguer is a photographer who spends her winters as the caretaker of the Isles of Shoals, capturing the beauty and solitude of the nine deserted islands in her pictures. She creates her images using film and traditional darkroom methods. She is a two-time Artist Fellow of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and her work has been exhibited at Pucker Gallery since 2014.

Pucker Gallery