Interview with Paul Caponigro
Conducted by Susan Larsen
At his home in Cushing, ME
July 30, August 7 & 12, 1999


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Paul Caponigro on July 30, August 7 & 12, 1999. The interview took place at his home in Cushing, ME, and was conducted by Susan Larsen for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Funding for the transcription of this interview provided by the Smithsoinian Institution's Women's Committee.

The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

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


SUSAN LARSEN: This is an interview with Mr. Paul Caponigro conducted in Cushing, Maine on July 30, 1999. So I found the essay that you wrote entitled Seasons [Paul Caponigro; Little, Brown and Company, Boston: 1988]. Very interesting, about your development as -

PAUL CAPONIGRO: I thought I ought to write a short history of myself [inaudible].

MS. LARSEN: And when did you write that? On what occasion? Do you remember?

MR. CAPONIGRO: The Seasons book is a Polaroid publication. I was a consultant for Polaroid between 1960 and '67, thereabouts. And they decided in 1980 - well, the date is on the book itself, mid-'80s. Eleanor designed it. Connie Sullivan was in the publications department at Polaroid, and she looked after the publication. So it was mid-'80s that - when they said, you know, we would like to publish your Polaroid pictures, just the Polaroids, the one-of-a-kind single Polaroids that you get-very unique items. And she said, you know, would you like to write the foreword or an afterword? And I decided at that time I would write my own history in condensed form. It pretty much tells where I've been with photography -

MS. LARSEN: It does.

MR. CAPONIGRO: - and how it started. And I think it's a good record in itself.

MS. LARSEN: It is. It's very - it's extremely clear and even-handed, I thought. A lot of personal histories have a different tone to it. It's very special that way.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Even-handed.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. It was - there was feeling to it, but it wasn't all - it wasn't self-involved the way some things are.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Yes. I was interested to see who that character was.


MR. CAPONIGRO: It's unclear where's he been? What's he been doing?

MS. LARSEN: Yes. Uh-huh. [Affirmative] And you got a little distance on yourself, and yet it was your voice. It was -

MR. CAPONIGRO: And enough humor to make certain that it wasn't going to be too serious.


[Tape stops, restarts]

MS. LARSEN: We'll start again. All right. I think our audio level is okay. So I think we'll start at the beginning, if that's okay. So you were born in -

MR. CAPONIGRO: Is there a beginning?

MS. LARSEN: Well, biologically, anyway, you know.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Oh, okay.

MS. LARSEN: I mean, there's - you were born in 1932. Is that correct?

MR. CAPONIGRO: December 7 -


MR. CAPONIGRO: - 1932, close to midnight. On a dark night arrives a dark baby.

MS. LARSEN: Ah-hah. And your - Caponigro is an Italian name?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Caponigro. My father was born in Salerno, Italy, southern Italy. My mother was born in Sicily, in the town of Canicattini Bagni. They were both brought over by their parents when they were perhaps a year and a half to two, three years old. So they arrived in New York, checked in, and moved to Boston.

MS. LARSEN: Interesting.

MR. CAPONIGRO: So both my parents were raised in Boston and went to approximately the eighth grade. That's when everybody finished their education. So they were educated in the Boston schools, and then left and took jobs.

MS. LARSEN: And they met in Boston?

MR. CAPONIGRO: They met in Boston.

MS. LARSEN: Did they speak Italian in the home?

MR. CAPONIGRO: The only time I heard my parents speak Italian was when the grandparents came to visit, or we visited the grandparents. But typical of that time, they were in process of becoming Americans, and they wanted their children to be American. So we didn't get the benefit of the language. They've always spoke English to us.

MS. LARSEN: Uh-huh. [Affirmative]

MR. CAPONIGRO: And then it was equally confusing because my mother spoke Sicilian with her parents and my father spoke Italian with his parents, and -

MS. LARSEN: So you had two languages going?

MR. CAPONIGRO: It's quite a dialect with the Sicilian.

MS. LARSEN: And were you in a neighborhood that was very Italianate, or were you in a neighborhood that had a lot of different people in it? I don't know Boston, but I gather that there are these ethnic neighborhoods that are -

MR. CAPONIGRO: There were. I was trying to get a picture of it. There were enough other ethnic groups within the Italian group. The real Italian groups would dump off in the North End, and then they would spread out to East Boston. And we were in East Boston. And directly next to East Boston is Revere, and then Everett, and so forth. So the ones that just got off the boat would usually center in the North End, branch out, quite a few into East Boston, and - but then Revere was a totally - on one side of the town was the Jewish section. And on the north side of the town were quite a few Irish. So East Boston was like substantially Italian, but peppered by the Irish and the Jews and other ethnic groups.

MS. LARSEN: So you went to school with lots of different ethnicities?

MR. CAPONIGRO: So there were quite a few different types that we went to school with. I remember most of my teachers were Irish. Not until high school did I actually get an Italian teacher, and I elected to take Italian. She taught me the Italian language.

MS. LARSEN: It's interesting how the Irish figures later in your life, in your photography.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Uh-huh. [Affirmative] Oh, yes. That was easy. I fell in love with a few Colleens in high school, some of the Irish girls. And of course, my grandparents would say, "What's-a matter you no go out-a with Italian girls?"

MS. LARSEN: [Laughs.] But at least they were Catholic.

[They both laugh.]

MR. CAPONIGRO: Well, that was another matter. Church and religion was not a center in our family.

MS. LARSEN: Really?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Yes. My grandparents took it dutifully. I guess they prayed for everybody.

MS. LARSEN: Right.

MR. CAPONIGRO: But my own parents, mother and father, would send us off to church on a Sunday morning.

MS. LARSEN: Really? Alone?


MS. LARSEN: By yourself?

MR. CAPONIGRO: They would hand us some money for the poor box, tell us to light a candle, and they would stay home. So that set the tone, pretty much, how serious should this be taken since they never go. Of course, they were always there for weddings and funerals. Other than that, there really wasn't an interest. My mother had probably guilt feelings about educating us religiously, so she made certain that the children received the first Holy Communion. We did that. Then we weren't asked to do anything, or even go to church, until the age of 12, when it was time for the confirmation.

MS. LARSEN: Catechism? Yes.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Then there was this ruffle and flourish and big to-do. I mean, I can't believe she had the nerve to bring us down to the local parish, to the Catholic priest, and announce that these kids hadn't been in church for six, seven years, and they must receive Holy Confirmation.

MS. LARSEN: Did you have to go to classes to learn all this - all the dogma and everything?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Oh, we had every - oh, O'Brien, Father O'Brien, was livid with her and said, I want these boys in my office every afternoon after school until it's time. And he worked with us on the catechism and this, that, and the other. And we received Holy Confirmation. Got a chance to kiss Archbishop Cushing's big, big, big ring on his finger, and wear a red robe, and -

MS. LARSEN: And that was like being a big play or something? Or did you take it quite seriously?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Well, no. I couldn't wait to get this heavy robe off. And I like the smell of the incense in the church. I never liked being in church for the weight of it all, the heaviness and the feigned seriousness and - you know, it was a very serious place. I didn't like it.

MS. LARSEN: I went through the Lutheran version of that same thing, so that's why -

MR. CAPONIGRO: Oh. Yes, I went to church right from the beginning because I was told to, and my, I met a lot of strange things and mysteries I didn't understand. And all right, let's watch and see.


MR. CAPONIGRO: And I saw enough that said, I don't think this is for me.

MS. LARSEN: Uh-huh. [Affirmative] And you had a brother?

MR. CAPONIGRO: I had an older brother.

MS. LARSEN: Okay. I should have asked about your family structure. Who was in your family?

MR. CAPONIGRO: I had an older brother and a younger sister and a yet younger brother. So there were four siblings, three males, one female.

MS. LARSEN: And so you were the second child?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Yes. I was the second. My sister was the third. And the smartest one in the family was the youngest brother. He just outran us all. [Laughs]

MS. LARSEN: And what's become of him?

MR. CAPONIGRO: He became an auto dealer. He started - he didn't want to do high school. He was very bright, and he just didn't want to do high school. So they put him in - he wanted to go to vocational school. He learned how to take apart motors. Graduated there. Became a grease monkey. Became an attendant in a garage. He took care of used cars and helped the man sell them by turning back the speedometers [sic].

MS. LARSEN: Ah, he learned about business.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Exactly. And he just worked his way up. And he finally became a salesman. So from greasy clothes, he went into a fine suit and sold Chryslers. Then he got tired of that because he was working for somebody else, went into auto body repair at his own business, and did that for quite a few years. A fun kid.

MS. LARSEN: So when you went through the elementary school, then you decided to go on to high school, unlike your brother?

MR. CAPONIGRO: I didn't decide to go to high school. My mother and father said I had to go to high school.

MS. LARSEN: Oh. Yes. Well -

MR. CAPONIGRO: I didn't want to go to school. I didn't -

MS. LARSEN: Did you find - you found - did you find something in early school that turned you on and made you -

MR. CAPONIGRO: The only reason I got through school is because I excelled in music and art. I barely made it through arithmetic. I barely made it through geography. I was not good in English. All those study things annoyed me, and they just wouldn't get through.

MS. LARSEN: And what musical outlet did you have?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Well, 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. And my first exposure was to my Uncle Jim.

MS. LARSEN: Was he a professional or an amateur?

MR. CAPONIGRO: He was a songwriter, and he played in the bars. Then he was taken by the Army, which gave him the GI Bill. And he went to the New England Conservatory of Music and got a degree in piano and teaching. So he furthered his education, gave his recital playing Debussy and a little Bach and a little Mozart and something like that. He went for the classical training, but for years, he played popular piano in bars. And it happened that he moved close to where my dad brought a house in Revere. We moved out of East Boston ghetto into the Jewish Revere ghetto. And Uncle Jim and my grandmother took a place just around the corner. So while he was studying at New England Conservatory, I got a chance to go and listen to him practice.

MS. LARSEN: Oh, how nice. Yes.

MR. CAPONIGRO: So that gave me a lot of grounding, listening and discussing with him. And of course, I was taking piano lessons with the local teachers while I went through junior high school and high school.

MS. LARSEN: And did he teach you and work with you?

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. No, he was too busy with his college curriculum, as well as supporting himself by playing in the bars in Boston at night.

MS. LARSEN: Did you ever go to the bars to hear him?

MR. CAPONIGRO: A few. A few.


MR. CAPONIGRO: So the music was quite strong. Very strong.

MS. LARSEN: And did you have a piano at home? You did, it sounds like. Right?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Eventually, a piano came. Eventually. I think we were in our teens, early teens, when my father - who used to love to sing, and he would sing the popular ballads of the day.

MS. LARSEN: What did your father do for a living?

MR. CAPONIGRO: He started out by moving furniture for a furniture company in East Boston. Then he decided to open his own furniture store with a relative of my mother. The two of them became partners and sold furniture and utilities and all that kind of stuff. Eventually he sold that business to his partner and focused on floor covering alone, linoleum and tiles and carpets and so forth. So that's what he did most of the time. But when we were early teens, he decided there's got to be music in this family.

MS. LARSEN: That's nice.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And my older brother Andy, you will get to play the guitar. And Georgia, you are going to play the piano, my sister. And Paul, you're going to play the accordion.

MS. LARSEN: Oh, boy.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And I said, "No, I'm not." He said, "Well, of course you're going to play the accordion. Your sister will play the piano and he's going to play the so-and-so, and you're going to play the accordion." I said, "I am not going to play the accordion."

MS. LARSEN: Why was that?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Because I wanted the piano. And of course, I was too young and didn't want to be disrespectful, and voiced that I wanted the piano. Why are you giving it to my sister? She never asked for it. Well, you know, these -

MS. LARSEN: I remember the accordion. Every family had to have somebody who played the accordion.


MS. LARSEN: I mean, in our circles, the accordion was sort of tacky. It was a tacky choice. And the piano was an elegant choice. And so my mother would never allow us to play the accordion. We had to play the piano. But I wondered if there -

MR. CAPONIGRO: Well, my -

MS. LARSEN: You just loved the piano, it sounds like, and -

MR. CAPONIGRO: Well, I was a bit hurt that they didn't catch on that I was constantly haunting my uncle because he played the piano and I wanted to be near it and I wanted to listen to it.


MR. CAPONIGRO: It surprised me, that when it came time for the instruments, that I didn't get the piano. And it hurt even more when they - when my dad said, "Well, all right. If you don't want to play the accordion, you won't play the accordion. But you seem to know a little something about pianos. Help me pick something out for your sister."

MS. LARSEN: Was it like an evidence that he wasn't paying attention to you? Or was it that he was imposing some kind of need of his own? Or -

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. They were very hard-working peasant types. And it was more 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.

MS. LARSEN: Well, that's nice.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And then it wasn't until we actually got the piano and my sister took lessons for a few months and became so disinterested, and my dad said, well, I guess the piano is yours.

MS. LARSEN: [Laughs.]

MR. CAPONIGRO: So by the age of 13, I had my first piano lessons. By the age of 14, I got my first camera because we got our first Holy Communion - no, first Holy Communion is at 6 - and confirmation at the age of 13, for which I was rewarded with a $20 bill. And I had already been scouting out where I could get a camera that I could afford.

MS. LARSEN: How had you seen a camera?

MR. 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. What happened at the - in those early years, I was not interested in school. I did not want to do the work. And what I did was 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 - and this was at Revere Beach where it meets Winthrop, where the airport is and all that kind of stuff - 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.


MR. CAPONIGRO: That was at about the age of 12.

MS. LARSEN: That's astonishing. Yes.

MR. CAPONIGRO: It just came full force. Get a camera.

MS. LARSEN: Now, who had a camera who you knew? Anybody?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Grandma had a Box Brownie. You know, the families. It was - my father and my mother both had big families. And there was always somebody with a Box Brownie to record events out on a picnic or at a family gathering, whatever. But -

MS. LARSEN: Often it was the father or the grandfather. How come it was grandma? Was there a grandfather there, too?

MR. CAPONIGRO: There was a grandfather, and neither one of them had any interest in - I've never seen a camera in their hands. My mother's father was a shoemaker. My father's father ran a grocery store in his basement. When he came over on the boat, he bought a four-story building, put a grocery business in the basement, lived on the first floor with his wife and one of the children who had her husband with her. They - my dad was one of eight siblings.

MS. LARSEN: It was typical, I guess.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And all the children with their spouses of my grandfather, all lived in this - and we lived on the top floor with my mother's sister, I believe. So I lived in a beehive of Italians.

MS. LARSEN: Yes, it sounds like it. Yes.

MR. CAPONIGRO: All the doors and all the windows were constantly open, and they were buzzing back and forth. And it drove me nuts. I could never get the quiet that I wanted, which is probably why -

MS. LARSEN: You went to the beach.

MR. CAPONIGRO: - I went to the ocean. Well, no, that's not - that may be part of the reason. But one of the things my dad did for us, he would take his two-week vacation and always, from Boston, bring us up to Maine. Rent a cabin on the lake, take us fishing, picking blueberries. He brought us to nature every year in those very early years.

MS. LARSEN: Where in Maine did you go? Do you remember?

MR. CAPONIGRO: He had a relative that owned a camp somewhere in the woods near Gardiner. I know the Gardiner River was involved. The river passed through some of the smaller towns. Up around Gardiner. Lewiston. Lewiston was more rural than Gardiner. We used to go into Gardiner to get supplies.

MS. LARSEN: And then go -

MR. CAPONIGRO: And then go back to the camp by the river.

MS. LARSEN: Well, getting back to the notion of photographing the shoreline or nature with a camera, most of us are experienced with photography in family situations as commemoration of the kids. It's a record of the family progress or something.

MR. CAPONIGRO: That's precisely what my mother's mother was doing. She wanted to make certain everybody was there and document it.

MS. LARSEN: But there's a big conceptual jump from documenting the family progress to taking pictures of something else that's not a story, that isn't an event, that isn't, you know, one another. Had you ever seen photography that wasn't the familial type?


MS. LARSEN: Had you seen art that was like - that was different?

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. But I think because of Arthur Gavin, who encouraged me and actually gave me the materials - and it was okay for me to use them in the house because Mom saw that a respected teacher had given these to me.

MS. LARSEN: Ah-hah.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And so I would try my hand at drawing. I would either copy objects or try something, you know. Mostly I think I remember I was copying things, drawings in magazines. But I do remember at the age of 9 or 10, somewhere around there, I decided to put aside the copying and just put down what came to me. And I was quite astonished at what came. It was an abstract, a series of circles and other more geometric shapes. But I was quite astonished. And I thought, did I do that?

MS. LARSEN: Yes. Where did that - yes.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Where did that come from?

MS. LARSEN: Yes. Were they in some kind of order, or were they just here and there, or -

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. Beautifully composed. Really well composed. And in fact, my friends used to tell me, when I first started to make snapshots with my little fold-out camera that I bought, but they made the observation that my compositions were really quite excellent, you know. I just was a natural. And I could organize things, feel how they had to go together or get just the right viewpoint. But I think the drawing kicked it off.

MS. LARSEN: Did you take these back to Mr. Gavin?


MS. LARSEN: And did he talk to you about them or show you -

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. He just encouraged me to do more. Just do more.

MS. LARSEN: Uh-huh. [Affirmative]

MR. CAPONIGRO: But what I discovered for myself as the years passed, at the age of 2 or 3 or thereabouts, something came out of that thing my parents called a radio. And the sounds that issued forth resonated in me to such a degree that I just simply wept. And I knew that those sounds were unique to a certain kind of music because my Uncle Jimmy played this stuff at the bar, and my father sang this. And so I knew that there was a certain kind of music that would affect me deeply. And so I would go for it any time I could, you know, if I could get someone to play with the radio knobs. So the music known as the classics was already hitting me. And I recognized that it had an effect. There was something going on in there that established or at least was allowing the same thing that enabled me to get that drawing out. It comes from an emotional realm, I discovered, that has its own perception. You know, it will manifest if the human being takes the interest and provides a medium for it. And I was lucky. I had a schoolteacher across the street. I had an Uncle Jimmy. And so I was being fed, and seeking it, various forms through sound and the art forms.

MS. LARSEN: And yet on the surface, very interesting because, you know, a lot of kids are taken to the conservatory or they're taken to the museum. It's like you're intuiting and finding these resources at close range.

MR. CAPONIGRO: I can remember not only at an early age but even later, especially when I was in the U.S. Army, looking for nourishment. I'd have the car radio on and I'd be driving along the seaside, and I'd watch the waves rolling in and a few birds flying overhead. And the atmosphere was just so. And everything was moving. So was I. And I'd realize that the pace of the automobile was right in tune with the pace of the waves rolling in. Then at other times, music would come over the radio. And it would be, to use the word, equivalent to what I was experiencing visually. They locked in and I recognized that the proportions, the tones, the whatever elements were combining, reflecting one another. So that is what I think gave me the ability to see that the chaos around us can be ordered and put visually as a piece of music is visual...


MS. LARSEN: So these things, you were really finding your way. But was there a - how did some of this come back into the school environment? Did it at all? Were you able to use your drawing abilities and your interest in music to help you through the school experience? Or was it kind of a private -

MR. CAPONIGRO: It was very private. It was a very private matter. It was very private, and I kept it private. I invited my high school friends to participate, and they weren't interested in it. Mom was a bit concerned. She thought I should be out playing football or baseball after school and so forth. But -

MS. LARSEN: Repairing cars or -

MR. CAPONIGRO: The recognition that what - out there, certain things could affect me in here, and that that had to be recognized, as intangible as it was and unruly, and understood. I came to the conclusion after graduating high school and after - I don't know if it was before or after my two years of duty with the Army - I saw it as a gift that I did not do well in school intellectually 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 rather than going through the logical process, the intellectual process, of saying, well, one and one is two, and two and two is four, and logically -

MS. LARSEN: How do I know - I know this thing, but how do I know this thing? And -

MR. CAPONIGRO: That seemed to be put - I mean, as if the cosmos itself arranged that I would not be a good student in school for the academics in order that the emotional realm that I worked with would flourish and develop. I think that's exactly what was going on.

MS. LARSEN: And that was - it worked out okay? You could handle that?

MR. CAPONIGRO: It worked fine. I was -

MS. LARSEN: That's good because sometimes - some people would -

MR. CAPONIGRO: 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, you're moving in and through. 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.

MS. LARSEN: Did you know any artists? Had you met any artists?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Not there. No. Only the principal of the - the director of the art departments in the city. High school days allowed me to then start visiting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And also during high school, I would play hooky and go to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So they became the next octave of activity -

MS. LARSEN: Uh-huh. [Affirmative] Ratcheting up from - yes.

MR. CAPONIGRO: - from nature and finding some medium to work with. And the piano. I was taking piano lessons already. So I fed myself on frequent visits to the Boston Symphony. I rarely missed a well-known pianist that came through, like Horowitz or Rubenstein or some of the old boys. I had to go and listen and watch.

MS. LARSEN: What did you prefer of those things? Did you have preferences, or did you really like - was it all so -

MR. CAPONIGRO: I couldn't do without. To this day, I have a darkroom in my basement right now and a grand piano on the first floor.

MS. LARSEN: I didn't mean of the two. I meant what sort of music, if any particular kind, did you particularly like?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Basically, the classics.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. But Baroque? Modern? 19th Century?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Anything that was good.

MS. LARSEN: [Laughs.]

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. Beethoven wrote 32 sonatas. And people would say, "Well, what's your favorite Beethoven sonata?"

MS. LARSEN: Yes. It's a kind of silly question. It's like asking what Cézanne painting do I love the most. And I would just [inaudible] I can't pick one.

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. If I had to give an answer, I'd say, well, I would take the third movement of the 21st sonata, and I would take the last movement of the fifth sonata. And what I was doing was isolating when Beethoven had hit a real spot in himself that he couldn't help himself. As he would say, "When I'm talking to my God, do you think I give a damn about your instrument?" You know, with the violinist, the violinist that was working in the quartet with him. And parts were very difficult. And the violinist said, Mr. Beethoven, does -

MS. LARSEN: I can't do that.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Does this have to be so difficult? He said, "When I'm talking to my God, do I care about your instrument and your problem?" And when he hit that, you could - at least I could grasp it and know Beethoven fell into a wonderful realm. And equally, I could tell when he was intellectually working the notes to play possibly up to something or to be bumped into something. Then it would become inspirational. We all - like I have lots of photographs that I consider exercises. And it's something that, boom, I finally find myself. It's like that in terms of a favorite. The real work is the favorite.

MS. LARSEN: And you have - but you have to keep the other going to get to that -

MR. CAPONIGRO: It's exercise.

MS. LARSEN: - because it doesn't come out of nowhere. It just -

MR. CAPONIGRO: Exercise. I mean, the Zen monks that work with art, they busy themselves with honing their brushes, sharpening their pencils, preparing the papers -

MS. LARSEN: Doing calligraphy.

MR. CAPONIGRO: - lining the inks, and when inspiration arrives - not what they would fabricate - when inspiration would arrive, they're right there immediately. So you do need to keep your tools alive. And I could not find - I did not have - a piano teacher all through my school days that could give me that on the keyboard until I got into the Boston University - and it was by default; I was not academically trained. I snuck in with my musical ability into the music department of Boston University College of Liberal Arts, and found the teacher that hangs over my piano now, Alfredo Fondacaro, who rescued me, just as Arthur Gavin rescued me with his paper and pencils, and said, you need some technique. You have to understand that you can't just do any old thing with those hands because the scores are demanding and you have to know. And he took apart all the bad training that was given me on the keyboard.

MS. LARSEN: I read in your Seasons essay something about he made you not play for a while. Was that -

MR. CAPONIGRO: For a while? How about a year?

MS. LARSEN: I mean, to not play the piano must have been awful, yes.

MR. CAPONIGRO: To stop using - well, it was - what I heard coming from him and his students, who were pretty adept, was strong enough that I would have gone through two or more years of not playing the piano. What he did do was to, first of all, insist that I stop simply because there were too many bad habits, and they would continue to manifest. Stop the bad habits. The second thing was that he could - he would teach me exercises, pure exercises, to train the fingers and train the ear, that they would learn what it meant to actually accomplish different kinds of passages or -

MS. LARSEN: So were you doing these -

MR. CAPONIGRO: He would invent the exercises. Five fingers, chords. He'd invent them on the spot and make certain that I knew them before I could go further in the use of the hands. He was my rescuer at that time.

MS. LARSEN: And what sort of music did he play or prefer?

MR. CAPONIGRO: It was the classics. After a full year of doing exactly as he told me and staying away from the music and really getting a sense of what he was - what he had to offer, I walked in, and it was almost a year to the penny. And I expected a lesson as usual, and he said, "Sit down at the piano." He went over to the window and lit up a cigar. He was being thoughtful. And then he walked over to the music cabinet and shuffled around, pulled something out, threw on the music rack the Chopin Impromptu in A Flat. And he said, "You've earned this. Let's make some music."

MS. LARSEN: Oh, how nice.

MR. CAPONIGRO: My God. I think I'm in heaven.

MS. LARSEN: So what did you think you were going to do with your playing? Were you going to be a performer? Were you doing it for your own joy, or did you have any purpose -

MR. CAPONIGRO: Well, you know, at that age, all of us young artists think that because we see so-and-so's paintings hanging or so-and-so's photographs hanging, that we're supposed to aspire to giving a performance at the town hall or - you know, they set it up for us in the same way that a lot of teachers set up the young students with the idea that this is very difficult, and you're going to have to work very hard, and you're going to have to practice seven, eight hours a day. It's all false. Absolutely false. But I was trapped in it. I was trapped in all those ideas until, in my own working, I realized that doing the piano, doing the photography - and I continued with some drawing. These are drawings. You know that - that the transcendent moments are what counted, that all of this work really could get you to transcend yourself, at which point you got inspiration, and the work would be good if not extraordinary because you got there. And you recognize all the exercises and everything that led up to it, or so on and so on. 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. And that is what allowed me to stay away from - I mean, I still participated. I gave workshops. I gave lectures. I've spoken before hundreds of people -


MR. CAPONIGRO: - and showed my art, and blah blah blah. And all of that is absolutely secondary.

MS. LARSEN: It's the being in the work -

MR. CAPONIGRO: That's the work itself. And I still have, you know, a lot of work to do. I still have a lot to fight. There's always a seven-headed dragon standing at my door when I try to go out and do this work. It's in the form of having to deal, make a living, a variety of, you know -

MS. LARSEN: People like me - I mean, just the things that are demanded of you.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Exactly. Taxes, voting for presidents when there aren't any, and all that kind of stuff.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. It's the structures of exchange in society that force us to engage with others in a system of plus and minus.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Which inspires me to get very, very essential within my life. At this stage, looking back at all that I have been through and I have done and I've experimented with and I've had to do, I want that initial contact with recognizing that inspiration comes from a particular realm beyond your own mind and your own rather misdirected feelings, that real art is a sacred business and it is a gift. One is graced with a state of being that could organize your totality, get your heart and your mind and your body together instead of they're always fighting one another, and that opens a path to sight that gives the inspiration to know this is where you [inaudible]. There is one. Or this is the color that associates with that form.

MS. LARSEN: The interesting thing, too, to me is that with a body of work, with someone like yourself who's created a body of work, only you could have done that work. That work wouldn't exist in that form except that you made these choices and decisions, and you have this amalgam of things that - and that in part to me is that part of the responsibility, that to have that voice come through, you're the only one who can make it come through. And it's not like someone else can bake a cake or someone else could - you know, I mean, it wouldn't be the same cake, yes. But still, there are things that can be handed off to somebody else. But making art, you can't hand it off to somebody else. If you don't do it, that work won't exist.

MR. CAPONIGRO: A lot of people fuss at me, saying, you're wasting too much time printing your own pictures. Let somebody else do that. But that interrupts the process for me. I can't have someone else print my prints. They cannot feel what I feel, and it cannot be released emotionally into the print unless I'm there and yank it from the developer at exactly the right time. They have no sense of that. They've got their own rhythm and their own emotional system to deal with. And that usually gets imposed on the print.


MR. CAPONIGRO: I can give them a print, and I can have a master printer try to duplicate it. And they can't get there because you can't get there from here.


MR. CAPONIGRO: It's very simple. I want to know: Have I been there all through the process? If not, where did I drop it?

MS. LARSEN: And you can probably tell.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And I can tell. I can tell.

MS. LARSEN: How did you get involved with - how did you get from snapping a picture and taking it to the drugstore, perhaps - I don't know; maybe you didn't, but - and getting into the whole process of photography as this continuous number of activities and motions until you have a final finished product? That requires darkrooms and teaching and learning and, you know, all that kind of awareness.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Yes. Nature was the main focus. And the camera was purchased in order to take pieces of nature back to my house with me. So I began with roll film and a bellows with a pinhole in it, which I didn't recognize at first. And somebody did repair it for me. And literally, the first two to three rolls that I brought to the drugstore, when I saw the results that came back, I thought, this is not going to do. And so I went to the other end of town where they had a photo shop, and I found - I remember seeing it at some point or other when I bought my film - a Kodak book that said, how to develop and print your own pictures. And so I bought that.

MS. LARSEN: What year would that be, about?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Age 14. Late 13, 14. And got permission from my father to set up in a dark corner of the cellar. I borrowed my mother's Pyrex dishes, and I decided I was going to run my own film through. I bought the Kodak MQ developer in a little packet. I set up my trays. And -

MS. LARSEN: All by yourself? You just did it out of the book?

MR. CAPONIGRO: I did it just out of the book. And I did it by putting two clothespins on either end and very carefully running the roll film through the tray by seesawing the film through it. I closed all the lights. I unrolled the film, clipped them on, did the seesawing through the first tray, through the second tray, through the third. And I had somebody knock on the door to tell me the time was up because I had no timer, my brother or my sister, I forget. And I switched on the light, and I had a total blank.

MS. LARSEN: Oh, boy.

MR. CAPONIGRO: A total blank. At which point I realized I had put it through the hypo first and the developer was - it was on the wrong side of the table. So I went out and I decided, okay, let's get this right. And I shot up another roll, and I went back and I got it right this time. And it was thrilling to see pictures on the roll. There were these negatives. And then I could make contact prints. What a delight.

MS. LARSEN: And again, there was nobody standing over your shoulder? Nobody saying, this is how you do it, or -

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. And I realized there's more to this, and I want to learn more. And at that point, junior high school was literally a block away from the ocean, and high school, further into town, was near Main Street where there was a portrait studio. So I'd get out of high school and I would go to the - and I'd say, can I sweep your floors? Can I run errands? Will you let me in your darkroom and see how you do that? So they took me on as a kind of a young apprentice.

MS. LARSEN: That's nice.

MR. CAPONIGRO: To run errands and do things, and they'd show me things through the camera, and they'd let me stand by in the corner while they lit up a portrait. And I would be in the darkroom with a red light and a great, voluminous globe of - it was an old Elwood enlarger, a great big diffusion enlarger. A huge thing. It was like an elephant. It looked like an elephant. And Mike - Mike Nazarro was his name - would just say, "You just sit there and you watch what I do. See, I have to do this first, and I have to do" -

MS. LARSEN: That's very nice.

MR. CAPONIGRO: It was great. And he'd show me, "Well, use this kind of paper because it has this. And then I use that paper for this. And you can veritype it to give it a gloss, or you leave it matte." And so I picked up a lot of tips. I got a feeling for developers and papers and negatives. And eventually, they said, "Come with us. We're going to go shoot a wedding and we want you to hand us flashbulbs and just watch what we do." You know, so I would assist them on weddings. And after a few months, they threw a camera in my hand and said, "You're shooting a wedding on your own this Sunday."

MS. LARSEN: Oh, my. And how old were you?

MR. CAPONIGRO: I was 15, 16. Maybe 16.


MR. CAPONIGRO: And I was coveting a particular 4 x 5 view camera that they had in their studio. And I thought, oh, I really want that. As it turned out, I bought from them a 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 Speed Graphic, and - because it was a Speed Graphic 4 x 5 that I shot the weddings with. And they had a small Speed Graphic, and I thought, you know, I want that. Of course, I never used it as a hand camera. I immediately put it on a tripod and looked through the ground glass and used it as a view camera. Those were my first nature pictures by the sea, some rather good studies. They were West Coast-like.

MS. LARSEN: Isn't that fascinating.

MR. CAPONIGRO: They were West Coast-like even though I had no idea that the West Coast existed in terms of who they had out there for photographers. But I built up a few images of - you know, a few pictures of the lake. I'd visit my brother up in the Adirondacks. He would play his guitar music at resorts.

MS. LARSEN: So he did do the guitar.

MR. CAPONIGRO: He did, and he became a very good jazz guitarist.

MS. LARSEN: That's interesting.

MR. CAPONIGRO: As well as - I mean, he brought himself to the level of an Andrés Segovia in terms of technique on the guitar. Really quite good.

MS. LARSEN: Goodness.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And he concertized for about a year, at which point he decided, no. I really don't like this concert business and traveling and all that kind of stuff. But during those years, wherever I went, I took my Speed Graphic and I photographed. And it was rather typical landscape photography that the West Coast was doing on a grand scale.

MS. LARSEN: And you weren't aware at this point?

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. I didn't know who they were.

MS. LARSEN: Was there any place in Boston showing photography that you saw?

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. Nothing of that kind.

MS. LARSEN: So you were just existing in this kind of commercial zone of the weddings and the portraits and -

MR. CAPONIGRO: That I did for, I uh - yes. Yes.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. That's -

MR. CAPONIGRO: In fact, I had a year. I took - before I got drafted into the Army and after I realized that I was not going to make it through a four-year course at Boston University, once I quit after the first - after the second semester, I quit and took up private lessons with that one teacher. Once I found that teacher, I thought, I want to focus on him. I don't want to do voice training and choral group and history of and -

MS. LARSEN: English literature and all the other stuff.

MR. CAPONIGRO: - all that kind of stuff. I said, no way. No way. So I found a job in Boston at a place called the Photographers Portrait Service. They serviced a great many of the studios in the Boston area that did portraits, high school pictures, weddings, all matter. They would turn their film in to this place to get processed. Somebody would print them. Somebody would tone them. Somebody would retouch them, you know. And I was there as a printer.

MS. LARSEN: And how long did that last?


MS. LARSEN: And you learned -

MR. CAPONIGRO: During which time the - what they had was a huge room flanked on all sides with enlargers. And there were printers at each enlarger. But in the center of the room, there were four major stops, each with a huge developer tray and a man who was there. So you would print your picture, put the negative in, print your picture, and throw it at the guy with the developer tray. And he would bring it up and say, "Too much exposure. Cut back on your" - and he'd throw it away and you'd put another one in. And he would - and we would chat during lunch and he'd say, "Well, you know, if you put a little citric acid in this, you know, you could do that. If you use that particular one-tone paper, you could find out about this." And you'd pick up little tips of what - you know, hear a lot of experienced printers.

MS. LARSEN: Were you like living in a darkroom, though, for hours on end? All day long?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Oh, yes. All day. All day.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. And who else - were there other serious photography people there?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Most of them had a business, a side business of doing portrait photographs, of being kidnappers, which was something that went on back then where you would present yourself to a mother who's about to have a baby and sell her a package -

MS. LARSEN: Yes. From birth to age 1 or 2.

MR. CAPONIGRO: - to photograph from birth right through to so-and-so. They called it kidnapping.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. That's cute.

MR. CAPONIGRO: And George Tice was a kidnapper. George Tice was. He was here last night. We had supper together.

MS. LARSEN: He's a good photographer -


MS. LARSEN: - and a nice person, I think. I don't know him well. I've just run into him. But yes, I think he's -

MR. CAPONIGRO: Very dedicated.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. He's an excellent person.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Very dedicated, and a nice man. So I had a year of more training. I went from the local portrait studio to a major group -

MS. LARSEN: Is someone knocking? Yes. Somebody was -

[tape stops, restarts]

MR. CAPONIGRO: - what my dimension was, what my realm was going to be, and was fortunate enough to have people around, a few, even though they were just a few, that recognized that I needed some help. You know, I came from a family that was concerned about making a living - four children, hard-working parents. They haven't time to dig into the -

MS. LARSEN: But the story that unfolds, though, is without - is very often people who take this path in their life experience all kinds of conflict and argument from people around them. And it sounds as though in general, you had very strong conviction, and perhaps they had some faith that you knew what you were doing.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Not only strong conviction but supportive parents, that despite the fact that my dad was building the business for me and my older brother to take over because it's not easy to make a living and here is a ready-made business. He said, "When I retire, you really should" -


MS. LARSEN: In some big families, too, there's a - I noticed - I grew up in a mixing neighborhood in Chicago, too. And I noticed in the Jewish families particularly that they would almost designate one of the children to be the scholar or the intellectual, and the other one to be the businessman. And I guess in Catholic families sometimes, one would be a priest. And, I mean, there was one who was - as long as the group moved along economically, they kind of helped each other along, and it was okay if one of their number went into a non-practical kind of - honorable but non-practical endeavor.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Honorable. [Laughs] So the high school stuff was a real good beginning because it really - it taught me to be in the world, and I had to relate to people. And it also gave me a good edge on the craft. And then that following year, I found my piano teacher. Although I fumbled through the academics of that year at Boston University, at least I found the teacher. So the following two years I worked in this Photographers Portrait Service gathering a little more technique, and a fabulous technique on the keyboard with the piano teacher simultaneously.

MS. LARSEN: And what did he aspire to with you? Do you know?

MR. CAPONIGRO: A transcendent sound. Produce a sound on the keyboard that would not only hover in the air but suggest that it could go a little further and, as I said earlier, touch that place where inspiration is fed through into the earth's atmosphere. He uh -

MS. LARSEN: Was he looking for you to make a career of the piano, or was there any pressure?

MR. CAPONIGRO: He had too many children. He had too many children. And there were one or two that had great potential, and he would give them that extra attention because they really were moving fast. And the rest, he would give them everything he possibly could. But he wasn't going to make a great pianist out of all of them. It's not possible. He had a bunch of personalities, all with different problems. But he was a very good father, you know. He would discuss the problems with them or with someone who might take responsibility to help this guy with that problem so he could get past it. I mean, he watched over his little flock. And he did say to me one day - we took a walk in the park when I was floundering a bit. And by that time, I was photographing, and quite seriously. I mean, I was really looking for what I found in my drawings to find that my compositions in picture making, photography, was equaling that or moving towards it. And the pictures were good, and he recognized them as such.

MS. LARSEN: You showed them to him?

MR. CAPONIGRO: I showed them to him. And I was wondering what should be my direction? How far can I - he said, you know, you have a really serious problem. And your problem is you have too much talent in one too many directions. You've got the piano and you have the drawings. You have to make a decision, you know? Somewhere along the line you've got to find out whether you're going to put your effort into this or you're going to put your effort into that. But for now, you know, don't harry yourself about it.

MS. LARSEN: Yes. It'll happen. It'll happen.

MR. CAPONIGRO: It'll take place. So that year in the high school and the year following, that really was grasping the need for good technique in order to really make good work with photography, and the same with piano. They were just right next to one another. And I was able to get both. I had a good grasp on making really good commercial prints. After two years with this Photographers Portrait Service and printing, and continued lessons with the master, bam. The U.S. Army got me. Called. I was devastated. Devastated. What? Here I am just beginning. I have real teachers and a real atmosphere for working, and the Army gets me?

MS. LARSEN: How dare they interrupt?

MR. CAPONIGRO: My piano teacher said, "Listen. Don't fret." He said, "What you have put into your hands will never leave you. Even if you're away for a year or two, when you get back, in a couple of weeks you will be right back where you started. So do your duty. Don't worry about this. Come see me when you get a furlough." Blah blah blah. And I was very, very unhappy. As it turned out, they trained me to go over to Korea and fight at the front lines.

MS. LARSEN: And the Korean War was going on?

MR. CAPONIGRO: Uh-huh. [Affirmative]

MS. LARSEN: Bad luck. That was poor timing.

MR. CAPONIGRO: Oh, well, that was bad luck. But my life has been full of good luck. I got to Fort Lewis, Washington, the separation point. They give you shots for overseas, new dog tags, new boots, clean up your carbine, fresh clothes, duffel bag full of stuff to go over and fight a war. And you report to the doc. They bring you in to the doc, first thing, early in the morning after two weeks of this processing, which we all did. And they sail you off to Korea. Midnight the night after all the processing and the morning where we were to get on the boat and sail comes an announcement over what is commonly known as the "bitch box" or the PA system in the barracks: "Now hear this. Now hear this. President Truman has ended the Korean conflict. There will be no further shipment of troops to Korea."


MR. CAPONIGRO: "Report at 0500 hours on the parade field for reassignment."

MS. LARSEN: Right.

MR. CAPONIGRO: So what's my reassignment? Presidio San Francisco.

MS. LARSEN: Ah-hah.

MR. CAPONIGRO: The post photo lab at Presidio San Francisco.

MS. LARSEN: Had you ever been to the West Coast?

MR. CAPONIGRO: No. Never been.


MR. CAPONIGRO: Where a civil service worker, a civilian, was hired by the U.S. Army to process all their color work for the Army hospital. And he had his own little lab within the major lab that serviced 6th Army headquarters. So I was printing in the major darkroom, the black and white darkroom, pissing off the sergeant of that lab because I was so much better than him.


MR. CAPONIGRO: Not realizing that that friction was because of this. Eventually he shipped me out. Couldn't wait to get rid of me. In fact, he tried to get rid of me by giving me aerial assignments: Go up into the sky in a Piper Cub. And he was hoping I would fall out. [Laughs]


MR. CAPONIGRO: Anyway, I'm always finding myself at the door of Benjamin Chin, who's a Chinaman, educated in both art and engineering.



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I first became aware of the work of Paul Caponigro in 1970 with the publication, Paul Caponigro: An Aperture Monograph, 1967. Hi example was in large part the reason I dedicated my life to photography and teaching. I was fortunate to meet Paul when he came to RIT to give a week-end workshop that included shooting and darkroom time. This wonderful interview reveals an important period in American photography....JN