This article was originally published in my newsletter in December, 2010.
A sunflower was presented to Paul Caponigro to celebrate the birth of his son John. That sunflower became the subject of, and the inspiration for a series of photographs. The series later became a book,Sunflower”, published in 1974. It has only 47 images in it, all in black and white, and each a compelling study of this simple flower. It has become one of my favorite books both for its simplicity and its inspiration.
I was drawn to revisit the book after picking up the September/October Special Issue of View Camera Magazine which is a portfolio of previously unseen Caponigro images from 1959 to 2009. The magazine is a specialized photography magazine aimed at photographers who work with large format film cameras, which I used to do prior to the digital age. Working with a large camera is a different discipline and imparts on the photographer a deliberation in the making of images. Imagine for a moment that you have memory cards capable of two exposures per card rather than hundreds. Pressing the shutter release would become a more deliberate act.
I have a library of resource material which serves as a means of feeding my mind with images. I have spoken recently about this concept of creating what I call a “visual database” of images that you can use to educate and inspire yourself. Publications such as Aperture magazine were a learning resource for me when I started in photography. More recently LensWork rose to be a great source of images by photographers whose work is exceptional. The current publications Color Magazine and Black and White Magazine are both worth a close look as their quality of reproduction is high and the work they present is notable. B&W Special Issue is a yearly single image contest issue that is a must have for serious photographers. Advertising in these quality magazines is restricted to the front and back pages and even the ads are worth your attention. Most of them are for galleries specializing in fine art photography and occasionally the photographers themselves. That means they are further sources of images to be looked into for inspiration.
Fortunately, these better publications have been available at local booksellers as well as through subscriptions. LensWork has stopped publishing for the bookstore market, unfortunately, but is still available on-line. I am not a fan of publications whose primary purpose is to sell me equipment rather than show me images. Most photography magazines are not only a waste of time and money, but many are simply poorly printed and serve only to reinforce photographic mediocrity in their choice of images. It is easy to show delightful landscapes or images that would make nice calendars, but if you are looking for more inspiring images you have to move beyond the usual fare.
Among the best websites in my mind are those for LensWork, Color Magazine, and Black and White Magazine, as they have galleries of images you can view on-line even without subscription. This makes them an amazing resource for viewing images. Not all images on these sites will interest all viewers, but all are worth looking at as you cannot know without experiencing the images what is truly worth your attention. Like musical styles, not all visual styles are going to be your instant favorites. Some take a little getting used to. That is what these sites and publications are there for.
That brings us back to View Camera Magazine’s Caponigro portfolio. According to their website they are planning another special portfolio edition for the coming year. The quality of the printing and the choice of images for the Caponigro issue set a high standard and it will be interesting to see whose work they highlight in 2011.
It is not important what inspires you to make photographs. You may very well be happy with snapshots, but I suspect that if you are reading this blog article, you are interested in improving your images. Doing so involves improving how you see images and how you understand the visual creative process. Some people just seem to do this naturally, but most of us need to learn and grow in our visual sophistication in the same manner as a young musician learns to first play the notes, and then to play them with expression and an understanding of their power. Visual dynamics, or chiaroscuro are as important to the success of an image as are dynamics in a musical performance. A virtuoso does not simply play the notes, they play the notes with expression.
“Photography, like music, must be born in the unmanifest world of the spirit” – Paul Caponigro