New York

Paul Caponigro and Duane Michals

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

A show at the Museum of Modern Art reviewed the current work of a young American, Paul Caponigro, whose photographs were recently published in a monograph by Aperture. Caponigro spent a year in England and Ireland photographing Stonehenge, Druid’s altars, megalithic stone circles and dolmens. He aimed to involve himself emotionally with the process and human activity which went into their formation. In this sense he brings a much greater commitment and almost moral obligation to these impeccably printed and elegantly composed pictures than he does to his earlier intimate studies of flowers, forests, rocks and natural forms. I found this expressed intention to reveal the “emotional forces generated by a place” one of the slightly detracting features of this group of new works.

At his best Caponigro is lucid, direct, and unsentimental; to many of the images of these awesome structures he brings an amazing closeness of vision. A large print of Carnac, Brittany, France (1967) shows the grand stone constructions casting long shadows as they stand with immense silent dignity against a cloudless sky—the mystery of the shadows (is the absent source of light wholly unearthly), the ponderous rhythm of the megaliths’ arrangement, are superbly captured in this photograph. In other prints of the Avebury Stone Circle, of Stonehenge and of sites such as the Druid’s Altar, County Wicklow, Ireland, the stark simplicity of rocks overgrown with shrubs and lichen, of knotted wintry trees and rough dry fields is the measure against which their ritual and symbolic significance is gauged, taking on a humble, but powerful importance. Some of the dolmens seemed to inspire a relatively melodramatic approach (a peculiar response from a photographer so adept at stripping away psychological distance and pruning away artificial pictorial devices). Where he allowed the subjects themselves to be more self-assertive, without consciously stirring up an emotive approach to them, their ancientness and the primal power of their forms appeared much more impressively and with even more visible clarity. Several Irish landscapes, or exquisite details of dense boulders sparkling with flecks of light, showed Caponigro at his forte—the quiet, close, and pnstme image which avoids emotional indulgence while projecting a timeless and richly subtle experience of reality.

What struck me after my first glance around the Underground Gallery during a showing of Duane Michals’ work, was that two familiar influences were contributing to the young photographer’s work, and yet his pictures possessed some disturbing and stimulating qualities of their own. Combining the symbolic cerebral penchant of Jerry Uelsmann with the serializing, multiple frame methods recently employed by another young photographer, Ray Metzker—but with neither the Surrealistic psychological intensity and subtlety of the former, nor the chic elegance of the latter—Michals shows a preference for ambiguous personal and urban images. His main problem at this point (aside from his source references to near contemporaries) is a tendency to become overly narrative and literary in the structuring of his serial or combined images.

For example, in a seven frame, horizontally mounted sequence called The Spirit Leaving the Body, Michals, by means of double exposure, shows a ghostly shadow rising from the form of a naked man who lies in a bare room. The shadow-spirit appears only in the five middle frames, fading out as it approaches the camera/eye, leaving the first and last frames empty. This is a patently obvious way to organize a story line, and consequently the image itself loses much of its potential for mysterious suggestion and complexity. I much preferred some of his single-frame combinations, such as a nude girl with her arms raised, standing on a balcony(?) overlooking a nighttime shot of tall city buildings and a trafficked, glowing street. Another one of these ambivalent but evocative pictures framed the mute back of a dark male figure (a policeman? a thug?) standing over a young man stretched out near a curb, or perhaps on a city rooftop. In the background, a silhouetted but bright view of the clock tower on a skyscraper’ near Union Square reverses the sense of time (the sky glows with an unearthly pallor) and adds a note of eerie impersonality. A Man Lying to Himself exhibits the best and the worst of Michals’ formal and esthetic inventions: a naked (i.e. vulnerable) man is seen in triple exposure, with the figures of himself as reason, neutrality, and blind intuition vying against each other. By incorporating such trite religio-moral overtones in the narrative sequence, Michals robs the picture itself of its inherent visual interest. Thematic material is often overbearingly obtrusive in his pictures.

The notion of using spectral presences, of implying temporary intrusions and unexplained withdrawals, or of using unseen distractions and psychological absence is of course somewhat Surrealistic. Mute men pass into and out of the rooms and corridors of apartments (or is it a dream that they do?) to touch lightly on musing women—or maybe to do violence to them. Portraits show men’s spiritual auras revealed, or show them at their most vulnerable moments. Michals aspires to a Magrittean sense of irrational metaphor, and though he has not yet found a way to express these notions with enough pictorial sophistication and subtlety, he shows some promise in that direction already.

Emily Wasserman