“Reflections on Silver” is a tour de force two-person photography exhibition at Frank Brockman Gallery in Brunswick. Leading the way is the master photographer Paul Caponigro. He is joined by his student, the Czech-born but Brunswick-based Anna Mikuskova.

Caponigro was born in Boston in 1932 and worked with giants of American photography, including Minor White and Ansel Adams. For the past 25 years, Caponigro has lived in the midcoast town of Cushing year-round. But the last major exhibition of his work in the state was mounted in 2011 in conjunction with his being awarded the Farnsworth Museum of Art’s Maine in America Award.

“Reflections on Silver” is a major exhibition featuring 45 gelatin silver print photographs – 25 by Caponigro and 20 by Mikuskova.

Caponigro and Mikuskova both work with large- and medium-format cameras. Producing and developing the negatives and then making the prints is complex and technical. Gelatin silver printing is the process we generally associate with old-school black-and-white photography since it was developed in the 1880s. Gelatin silver prints comprise layers of baryta (barium sulfate) and gelatin on paper. The gelatin layer contains light-sensitive silver compounds that form the image when exposed to light projected through the negative; the image is then fixed permanently by a chemical bath. To make a print lighter or darker, photographers “dodge and burn.” They crop. They can tone prints. They can use multiple negatives. And they may spend hours “spotting” a print with a brush to remove negative scratches or other flaws. A single print from “Reflections” has many hours of work behind it.

I’m including this thumbnail technical description because Caponigro is arguably the best printer in America. (There is a reason Ansel Adams asked Caponigro to teach in his workshops in 1978.) His scenes are beautiful and his images are captivating, but Caponigro is unique in his ability to reveal his subjects through photographic nuance.

Stream view by Paul Caponigro.

Caponigro is best known as a landscape photographer, but among his scenes of Stonehenge, mountain vistas and the mystic Maine woods, he is particularly well revealed by his studio still lifes. The most arresting pictures of “Reflections” include a moth in a wooden bowl, a rose on a rough tree cross-section and white pears in a dark wooden bowl. Describing the moth is practically futile, since the true effect of the work is not the simple structure but the seemingly infinite depth of detail and texture of the moth, the wood and the photographic print. It has to be seen in person.

Caponigro’s Stonehenge scenes are less print-driven. They are more geared to the viewer’s relationship to the scene teeming with myth, mystery and the mystic. His forest scenes are the key to the show because they present Caponigro’s most subtle strengths while opening the door to the New England-flavored nature spirituality of transcendentalism. We see this with frank forest scenes such as “Reflecting Stream, Redding CT” (1968), a view down a forest stream over the sky-reflecting glassy pool above a natural (beaver?) dam. And we can feel it even more powerfully in “Cloud and Landscape, Cumbria, England” (1978), a view through a cwm valley with a receding suite of ridges that proves this to be a masterpiece of gelatin silver printing. While the technical aspects of printing might sound like issues of inaccessible connoisseurship (zones, grain, contrast, etc), in the hands of a master like Caponigro, the accomplishment is easy to see and feel. This is where photography leaves behind the mere trafficking of images and becomes an art of experiential depth.

“Winter River,” by Anna Mikuskova.

“Snapping Turtle, Cushing, Maine” (2012) combines Caponigro’s spiritual sense of the outdoors with his still life virtuosity. The image features a dead turtle on its back on a moss-covered batch of ground through which various tiny flowers and plants are growing. The turtle’s long neck is extended, but bent as though its breaking was the cause of demise. The photographic detail expounds the sense of intimacy, donning the scene in memorial tenderness. Lying on the soft moss bed among the symbol-rich flowers we might see in a Botticelli painting, the little turtle comes across as a fallen hero, a pure-hearted miniature knight who succumbed on a benevolent quest. It is sad but bittersweet and beautiful.

I can’t think of a more daunting artist in Maine with whom to have a two-person show than Caponigro, so, out of the gate, Mikuskova scores points for sheer guts. But her work is good enough to be defined by its strengths rather than relative shortcomings. This, however, is again testament to Caponigro: Mikuskova works directly with him in his Cushing studio on a weekly basis in the form of an old-fashioned artistic apprenticeship. Her success is his too.

Mikuskova appears in “Reflections” as the more purely landscape photographer. She shows real range, however, when she shifts from scenes of her native Czech Republic to Alaska and back to Maine. Her “By the River, Prague” of 2013 is (for her) an older work. It’s a complex scene that purveys massive promise: The image is based on an arched bridge leading to the easternly-domed city back on the left. A female figure dark to the point of silhouette faces back across over the river to the left. A swan stands guard to the cut her off physically from the viewer. The bridge arches each contain a complete scene; this pulls us to the details. The arches of the bridge match the natural physics of the birds, the vaulted buildings and so on. It’s an extraordinary image. And while I imagine we can see Caponigro’s help in pulling out the distant zones through the bridge, the darkness and weight of the tones can’t reach the nuanced touch of her later work.

Images of a stream and a moth illustrate the extraordinary depth and texture and detail of the photography of Paul Caponigro.

Mikuskova has an impressive narrative ability. We see this in a tumbled Irish graveyard with a Seussian line of trees along the edge of a gumdrop hill and in a scene of two discarded trucks (or are they?) by a leaning (collapsing?) building in barren Alaska. She garners mystic depth between being and non-being in a scene of a thawing river: black water, white ice, some snow-capped plants jutting through, but the dominant element is the in-between. And with this last image, Mikuskova follows Caponigro in using the quality of the print as the site of the viewer’s experience. It’s subtle, delicious and quiet as an isolated winter stream.

Caponigro is a master. And while he may have no current competition from Mikuskova, he has certainly found and fostered an extraordinarily talent. In his shadow (or whatever you might call the spot next to such a giant), she is thriving. Because of Caponigro alone, “Reflections” is a show not to be missed. But to see him with his apprentice, I can imagine, could be like seeing Caponigro with Minor White, or, possibly, White with Ansel Adams.

Mikuskova is an artist to watch. And Caponigro is one of America’s greats; that’s absolutely clear in “Reflections.”

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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