Since speaking recently with a young friend who is embarking on the study of art and photography, I’ve been pondering questions of inspiration and influence. What drives someone to undertake the risky path of a creative life, and what sustains them on the journey? I call it creative “life” rather than “career,” though one hopes to pursue one’s work in a way that earns income. No matter what it takes to support the creative habit—or what form that habit takes—the real challenge is staying true to one’s own vision. We each have a unique way of seeing and expressing that sets us apart from everyone else. When we start out, the work is about discovering what is there but also finding what is “ours”—we have a sense of it, but it isn’t developed. It’s important to be open to the work of past masters—photographers, painters, and other artists—and to latch on to the work that inspires us.
When studying photography in Rochester, NY, I was fortunate to do research at the George Eastman House (now the International Museum of Photography) when it was still easy to make an appointment and handle the original prints of the “greats.” I also worked for a photo gallery and bookstore, which gave me many opportunities to see contemporary work and even meet the virtuosos of the era. In LA last month, I was able to revisit the work of one of my biggest influences, the photographer Paul Caponigro, whom I met briefly in that bookstore. His landscapes of Britain and Ireland were on display at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. I spent a dreamy day photographing among the world-renowned desert plants in startling sunshine, while taking breaks to view Caponigro’s mystical black and white landscapes. His early influences were Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, but he went on to study with Minor White, who introduced ideas of consciousness and spirit into his photographs. Caponigro’s prints are exquisite, incorporating deep shadows and subtle gradations of tone that one rarely finds now. The views are quiet yet breathtaking, expressing a spiritual connection to nature. "At the root of creativity,” he has stated, “is an impulse to understand, to make sense of random and often unrelated details. For me, photography provides an intersection of time, space, light, and emotional stance. One needs to be still enough, observant enough, and aware enough to recognize the life of the materials, to be able to 'hear through the eyes’." This is such good advice for a young photographer, even in this time of technical miracles. I know my own work owes much to his vision, though I’ve moved beyond the brown-black shadows of my early prints into landscapes rich with color.