Harrison Gallery hosts a solo show of Paul Caponigro’s photographs.
Harrison Gallery hosts a solo show of Paul Caponigro’s photographs. (Paul Caponigro / Images courtesy of Harrison Gallery)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Paul Caponigro's images connect instantly to a moment in 20th century photography, to the expressive and technically masterful landscape photos by artists like Ansel Adams. A selection of images now on display at the Harrison Gallery in Williamstown shows the undercurrent of feeling beneath his mastery of camera, light and printing.

The show offers a cross-section of his work, taken from a number of different series he has created through his career. These include landscapes from the American Southwest, Ireland and Britain, sites like Stonehenge and natural features like the waterfalls in "Glencar Falls, Sligo, Ireland, 1967" and "Yosemite Falls, CA, 1973." Some are sharp and focused, and some -- like "Tree Stump, Rochester, NY 1957" and "Giant Redwood, Pacific Coast, CA, 1975" -- are deeply abstract.

Jo Ellen Harrison, the director of the Harrison Gallery, described "the romantic and heroic nature of his subjects."

"Caponigro chooses subjects that evoke the romanticist in us, the pioneering spirit," she said. "The compositions are often very intimate, as though from our own eyes as we walk through the woods or along a path or beach."

Each of the images shows Caponigro's considerable technical skill, as all are traditional silver gelatin prints.

"I think his work in the darkroom is amazing," Harrison said.

In particular, she said his work highlights the magic and warmth of analog photography. She singled out ‘Cloud, San Sebastian, New Mexico, 1980," of a cloud formation over the desert in the fading light.

"This has every gradation of gray," she said. "You can't do that with a digital camera."

Nicholas Whitman, a photographer from Williamstown, teaches a Winter Study course at Williams College about landscape photography. He said he urged his students to visit the exhibit, and to appreciate that they are seeing a singular artistic vision.

"I don't tell them what they're supposed to see," he said. "I want them to see something original: That the photographer made this, with his hands, and he signed it, which means he thinks this is as good as it can be."

Whitman wants his students to be aware of the craftsmanship, and to remember that "every picture is deliberate."

In his class, he teaches digital photography, but he also has the students explore how photography has evolved, with an awareness of how the technology has changed and shaped their approach. He starts by telling his students to turn off all the automatic functions on their cameras and experiment with aperture and shutter speed.

"I want them to understand what's being done on their behalf," he said.

He praised the expressive nature of the work Caponigro and his peers were doing, the way their images communicated with each other to create their own symbols and language. He said that for his students, finding their own vision is an important lesson.

"It's pretty subjective," he said. "I try to encourage them in whatever direction they want to go."

Caponigro, who is now retired and lives in Maine, was born in Boston in 1932, and had begun working in commercial photography in Boston when he was drafted into the army. While stationed in San Francisco in the early 1950s, he met and struck up a friendship with the photographer Benjamen Chinn -- originally based on their mutual love of classical music. Chinn introduced him to many of legendary mid-century photographers like Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Minor White, many of whom would become his teachers and mentors.

While all those legendary photographers influenced his work, Caponigro has said that he couldn't pursue the formal, analytical approach they often used in their work. He found that the added dimension he was searching for, the extra spark he sought for his work, was a simple awareness of his own emotional flow while seeing and photographing.

"The realm of emotion, the realm of intuition, the realm of the subconscious mind -- my God, what a rich harvest can be gotten there, if you allow it to be, if you accept it for what it is and not try to explain it away," he said in a 2008 interview.

Harrison said Caponigro is the only photographer she has collected herself.

"I came upon Caponigro's work in Boston three years ago," she said. "I was drawn to the incredible, velvety surfaces of his photographs. He very carefully captures vistas and scenes that any other photographer might make feel trite [or] amateurish.

"Caponigro makes them grand, timeless, and heroic."

If you go ...

What: Photographs by Paul Caponigro, contemporary master with work in major museums through Jan. 29.

Where: Harrison Gallery, 39 Spring St., Williamstown

When: Hours Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: Free

Information: (413) 458-1700, theharrisongallery.com