By Joe Amarante, New Haven Register
Know the names Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro? Our Register photographers certainly do.
The Yale Center for British Art has teamed the two American lensmen in a new exhibit of their work in Britain and Ireland, kicking it off with a press preview and an Arts & Ideas forum in the past several days.
This exhibition of black-and-white photos largely from the 1960s has been co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art and The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in California. The exhibit officially opened Thursday at the Chapel Street center and runs to Sept. 14; it will be on view at The Huntington from Nov. 8 to March 9, 2015.
The exhibit has its direct roots in 2005, said center curator Scott Wilcox, when a collection of Davidson photographs was published in a book by a German publisher.
Center donors came together and allowed the New Haven art center to purchase the photos, he said.
“Amy (YCBA Director Amy Meyers), who had worked closely with Paul when she was at the Huntington, said ‘I’ve got a great idea. Why not pair Bruce’s work with Paul’s?”
Not that they’re similar guys with similar styles. They’re not.
Davidson, a photojournalist, captured the British people at work and play in his trips in 1960 and 1965. Working over the years with renowned photo agency Magnum Photos, Davidson has toiled to capture “the decisive moment,” that telling instant isolated and frozen in time by the photographer.
Caponigro, a landscape photographer, did almost the opposite — focusing on ancient stone circles, dolmens (portal tombs) and early churches in the British and Celtic countryside. He would work to capture the timeless qualities of antiquity and nature in a place such as Stonehenge.
“Paul and Bruce are such distinguished photographers of the same generation ... born within a year of each other,” said Wilcox. “They are both craftsmen in the ways of traditional photography ... using film and black-and-white photographs. And they’re both masters of the darkroom.”
Yale-educated Davidson, 80, and Boston-raised Paul Caponigro, 81, looked on as Wilcox spoke before leading a tour of the third-floor gallery that holds some 150 examples of their life’s work.
The photos are not interspersed or paired, however. Wilcox said running them side by side seemed “artificial,” so they were kept separate — laid out in a sort-of mirror image with Davidson’s work on one side of the expansive gallery’s rooms and the Caponigro’s on the other. They meet at place where a 16-minute film tells their story.
How did they get to shoot photos in Britain and Ireland? Davidson said he was in the service in 1956 and he asked his Welsh sergeant, “Where would you send your worst enemy?” The sergeant responded “Cwmcarn, Wales.” So Davidson visited the place for a few hours and took pictures.
After the service, he did a famous 2-month assignment with British magazine The Queen, commissioned to just explore England and Scotland. The magazine published a selection of the resulting photographs in an article titled “Seeing Ourselves as an American Sees Us.”
“I think I took on the assignment of Queen magazine because I had just spent a year with a Brooklyn teenage street gang, and I was a little nervous ... that they’d come and get me,” Davidson said.
With his trusty Leica always in tow, he met and photographed a group of charming young people in Britain, coal miners, mothers lugging big-wheeled baby carriages, women lawn bowling, a teen street girl holding a kitten. And with money from Magnum, he bought a Hillman Minx convertible to get around, he said, and lived on fudge and bananas.
“I like to be on the inside of a life, and photograph as an insider. But actually, I’m an outsider; that’s true of all my work,” Davidson said.
Davidson, who said he loves freedom in his work, said he “just had a feeling about the Brits. What I liked about them was their humor, and at that time you could take a picture of them and they would just slough it off.”
He was interested in the heightened moments of life, too.
At Yale, Davidson went up to the Yale football coach at halftime of a game and said he wanted to see (photograph) the team as “tension, as a reality. Not the game, but the reality.”
Life magazine published his team photos when he was in the Army working as a janitor in a darkroom. And when his captain found out he’d been published in Life, he said, “Put down that mop. We’ve got to photograph the general this afternoon.”
Caponigro went to Ireland six years after Davidson went to Britain.
“By way of Egypt,” Caponigro said, surprising even his hosts and invited guests this day. “When I was in high school, I used to skip and go to the museums so I could see the Egyptians collections.”
But years later, he was warned by another photographer that Egypt was too politically volatile to visit.
He had a wife and child at the time (his son, John Paul Caponigro, is also a photog now, who does use digital cameras), and his wife suggested Ireland for its ancient artifacts.
“And then, of course, I discovered that, being a landscape photographer basically ... that the Irish landscape was so beautiful I was happy to lose myself in it,” he said.
A Guggenheim grant allowed him to motor around for a year in his wife’s VW Bug, he said. It was a time when Boston Italians like him weren’t so chummy with the city’s Irish back home.
Didn’t matter, said Caponigro.
He was brought up in a three-story building his grandfather had bought and had opened a grocery store in the basement. “And every member of the family (was) on successive floors, with their husbands, wives, children ... I was living in a beehive of Italians. And I had a quiet nature ... but these Italian families, they’re so big in loving each other and ... minding everyone’s business but their own. There’s no quiet, and I needed that quiet.”
Responding to a question by Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photography at The Huntington Library, Caponigro said he discovered “the British Isles predominantly has an atmosphere that is quite ancient and rises up on the land, and I wanted to walk in that and work in that. ... There’s an atmosphere in the British Isles that’s quite different than we have in America.”
He said on repeated visits, he became an honorary Celt, at least with tavern regulars.
At Stonehenge, he found that the ancient stones were an equivalent to what Egyptians had done. So he looked into the mythology of the Celts and other groups.
Caponigro, who said he never had much interest in school, called himself “an emotional archaeologist,” and said Stonehenge is situated on land that the ancients knew gave off energy under certain conditions.
One of his famous photos was taken when Stonehenge was closed to the public, but he was allowed inside the ring of stones, he said. The photo now relays a quiet energy of its own in a New Haven art museum.
The Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., is closed Mondays, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. other days except Sunday, when it opens at noon. It’s free and open to the public, but it will close in 2015 for extensive “conservation work and renewal of the public galleries” on the second through fourth floors of the boxy, Louis I. Kahn-designed building.
IF YOU GO:
Exhibit: “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland”
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, now-Sept. 14
Where: Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven
Info: 203 432 2800, britishart.yale.edu