Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro, two American photographers who made their names in the British Isles in the '60s, had two disparate interests.
Davidson, who cut his teeth photographing street gangs in Brooklyn, headed straight to cities: London, Blackpool, Cambridge, Brighton. In places with lots of people and bustle, cars, prams, pubs, pigeons in Trafalgar Square, Davidson could catch the everyday flow, and sometimes the quirky charm, of the people of England. "I like to be on the inside of a life and photorgraph it, but I'm actually an outsider," Davidson said.
Caponigro preferred the quiet and mysterious hinterlands of Ireland, where prehistoric tombs stood tall in empty, grassy landscapes. "The British Isles predominantly has an atmosphere that is quite ancient that rises out of the land," Caponigro said. "I wanted to walk in that and work in that."
Together, Davidson and Caponigro present an engrossing picture of the British Isles, ancient and modern, in a dual show at Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.
Both men were present at a recent press walk-through; Davidson is 80, Caponigro 79. Davidson was witty and energetic, wearing his camera around his neck. "I take it with me wherever I go. Sometimes I don't want to, but when I leave the camera at home, something happens," he said.
Caponigro was quieter, and more metaphysical in his comments about his work. "The Irish landscape is so beautiful, I was happy to lose myself in it," Caponigro said. "You want to pick up an atmosphere. ... You want to hear what you can't see."
The men's working cameras — Davidson a little Leica, Caponigro a tripod camera — and their photographs match their natures and their subject matter. Davidson's photos show cities full of activity, cars, animals, people who are curious, cranky, playful, but all of them busy busy busy, going from one place to another, almost none of them stopping to look at the photographer taking their picture. "I like the Brits. I like their humor," he said. "At that time, you could take a picture of them and they'd just slough it off."
Many times his camera focused on the comical aspects of daily life. A big dog sits behind the wheel of a car. A woman sunbathes in Blackpool, with her sour-faced husband sitting beside. Two old women look shocked at ... something.
In one photo in the gallery, a scruffy young man sits on a city sidewalk drinking tea from a proper cup and saucer. In another photo hanging nearby, a man in a suit and a woman in a dress sit in the sand in beach chairs, also drinking tea. "Drinking a cup of tea at 4 is a religious thing," Davidson said. "Tea brings everything together."
Next to Davidson's work, Caponigro's is still and contemplative, focusing on ancient rock constructions against cloudy skies, the most famous being Stonehenge. The dolmens, cairns, stone circles, burial mounds and standing stones were created thousands of years ago, and their creators left no information behind about the purpose of the structures. But Caponigro says when he stands among them and makes no noise, the spirits make their presences known.
He calls himself "an emotional archaeologist" and said that the ancient structures were the equal to Egyptian temples, which were his first love. But they were different nonetheless.
"When I got to Ireland, I felt something in the land that gave more than an intellectual basis to the feeling," he said. "I was very lucky in that I wasn't much of a reader. ... I didn't read about these stones. ... When I actually put my feet on the land, I felt something emerge."
BRUCE DAVIDSON / PAUL CAPONIGRO: TWO AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS IN BRITAIN AND IRELAND is at Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St. in New Haven, until Sept. 14. britishart.yale.edu.