Object Lesson: Two images, two photography roads taken

Object Lesson: The U.K. photography of Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro offers unlikely parallels

They are two photographers whose paths crossed repeatedly over the decades, but who never met until a combined exhibition of their work opened at the Yale Center for British Art this past summer. 

Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro were both born in the United States in the 1930s. They are both known for their meticulous attention to the craft of photography. And they both spent formative periods shooting in Britain and Ireland. But their subject matter couldn't be more different. Davidson leans toward crackling urban and industrial settings. Caponigro chooses pastoral landscape and ruin: megalithic boulders, crumbling walls, the shells of early Christian churches.

Now the work of these two photographers stands side by side in an ongoing exhibition at the Huntington Library in San Marino: "Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland." 

"At first, the pairing might seem odd," said Jennifer Watts, the Huntington curator who helped organize the exhibition with Scott Wilcox of Yale. "But they crossed a lot of the same places. ... Both of them are real master photographers, black-and-white practitioners who do it the old-fashioned way. They make pictures using film and print by hand in a darkroom."

Both photographers got their first cameras at the age of 10. And they each served in the military (as photographers). They also spent time studying the art in Rochester, N.Y., an important photography hub. (It is, after all, the home of the Eastman Kodak company.)

For Davidson and Caponigro, their multiple journeys to Britain were part of what Watts called "a personal artistic quest."

One of Davidson's early journeys took him to Wales in 1965, where he made the picture at the top of this article: a taciturn young girl pushing a pram up a hillside, a bleak industrial landscape just behind her.

"By this time," Watts said, "he'd been covering the Freedom Riders and the civil rights struggles in the South. He'd become quite cynical about life. ... He arrives on assignment, but on his own dime, he decides to go to South Wales."

One thing that drew him there, she added, is that other American photographers had made the same journey: "Eugene Smith had been there; Robert Frank had been there. And he wanted to put his own stamp on it."

Did he ever. The image above, from the series "Wales, 1965," manages to be both bleak and supremely weird. The landscape appears singed. The girl stares confrontationally. And the doll, in the foreground, looks like it's out of its mind.

"There's this ambiguity to the owlish person pushing the pram," Watts said. "The belching smoke of the background and the wonderful element of the wash on the line to the left, as well as the compositional element of the white shirt of the girl. ... I love the contrasts. I keep coming back to the surreal nature of this."

Contrast that with Caponigro's 1993 picture "Mevagh Stone Cross, County Donegal, Ireland," taken during the photographer's last trip to Ireland (also embedded in this article.)

By this time, Caponigro had already cemented his reputation as a notable art photographer. A landscape photographer who had trained under figures such as the spiritually minded Minor White, Caponigro had also traveled to England, Scotland and Ireland repeatedly. They were places whose landscapes continually inspired him.

"One of his mantras is that there's a force in the land and it's intelligent," Watts said. "He's spending a lot of time setting up his camera, walking around, figuring out exactly where he wants to make a picture. And he may make one or two negatives and then spend hours perfecting the print."

"He is known as one of the great living black-and-white printers," she added. "The range that you see in the sky here is so exquisite." 

And there is, of course, the jutting stone cross, which sits dramatically in the foreground. While his photographs focus on the land or architectural remnants, they do reveal traces of people, Watts said. "The dolmens and the ancient churches and these ancient crosses signify for him this eternal kind of spiritual force."

The pairing of Davidson and Caponigro at the Huntington is an unusual one. But it provides an interesting forum in which to consider the singular ways in which disparate artists can tackle the same territory. 

It is also a joy simply to marinate in work that is so skillfully produced, so exacting in the stories it chooses to tell.

"At the basic level," said Watts, "what unites them is a complete dedication and passion for the medium of photography."

"Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland" is on view at the Huntington Library through March 9. 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, huntington.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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