New York

Paul Caponigro

Schmidt Bingham Gallery

Standing stones—rings, dolmens, menhirs—have been part of the landscape of northwestern Europe as long as several thousand years, for the last thirty or so of which they have been photographed by Paul Caponigro. And also by any number of other people, for they are popular subjects with photography’s equivalent of the Sunday painter. The idea of likening Caponigro’s deeply knowledgeable and masterfully printed images to hobbyist snapshots frightens the timid reviewer, but the fact is that the tradition to which he belongs—the same line as Minor White—embraces “spiritual” and “transcendental” qualities often desired, and all too easily achieved, by amateurs. There is a sizable part of the contemporary art world, ironic and judgmental, in which these sentiments would not fly at all; and Caponigro didn’t help himself when he wrote, in the epigraph to a recent collection of his work, of “The eye of truth providing the wedge / For the barriers to break and the inner ear to listen.”

The photographs on view (taken between the mid-’60s and the early ’90s) were more eloquent than Caponigro’s language, but even so there was a conventional side to them, and they were sometimes a little sweet. Yet I like them quite a lot. Despite their surface accessibility, their mood is hard to describe: cunningly pacific, near mournful but not quite. In some—a 1972 shot of the Callanish ring in the Hebrides, for example—Caponigro explores relationships among the stones, suggesting their silent communication; in a remarkable pair taken at Stonehenge in 1970, the pillars seem nearly translucent, vessels of the light poured onto them over the centuries. The angle of view is often slightly downward and the horizon line high, at or even above the top of the picture, which mutes the stones’ impact. Even when Caponigro silhouettes a form against the sky, he may pick a day when sky and stone are almost the same gray, or may pull back from the subject to reduce its size. The subtly anomalous result is a kind of drama without tension—a fitting tone for these monuments’ slow, slow accretion of meaning and presence.

The standing stones Caponigro shoots are human additions to the landscape that have been there so long they seem born there, and this conflation of culture and nature surely contributes to their supernatural penumbra. Americans tend to think of spirituality as a struggle for serenity, which is, of course, a contradiction in terms; questions of faith, though, are actually controversial and impassioned universally. But look at us: our spiritual life seems largely to consist of banalities or ferocities, or else, for the secular audience, of irrelevancies. In this context Caponigro’s photographs look in certain ways like a retreat from modern life, but may just help us through it.

David Frankel