The Free Vision Of Susan Kaprov

Photos © 2002, Susan Kaprov, All Rights Reserved

"Photography is magic. It has always been and always will be for me--just magic. Because you see the world in a microcosm. You see the world on a piece of paper. And it is real in a way yet it is illusory. And it is a way of translating something you see. I could give you a photograph of something you had never seen before and tell you that it really exists. And then I can manipulate the photograph and say, well, but it doesn't really exist that way. Then you can go and see the thing and see it through my eyes and say, oh yes it does--your interpretation is just fine. To me that is magic."
--Susan Kaprov

"I consider myself a stylistic nomad," Susan Kaprov says with passion. "I like to give myself the freedom to explore an idea thoroughly." The esthetic freedom that Kaprov speaks of usually involves an idea that may have been external to her and then internalizing it to make a visual kind of poetry. Her specialty has been commissioned art for public places, large photomontages where thousands of people can see them daily. They include Prudential Insurance Co. of America, National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington, DC, and Reeves Communication Corporation in New York. Her smaller work is no less important, however, and is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These are based on floral motifs that Kaprov describes as her cosmic tapestries.

"I always begin with an idea," she says. "I look at flowers and wonder what would happen to their exquisite detail if I took them and bunched them all together or fragmented them. They would lose their identity to some extent but would form another kind of identity and we would see them differently."

All of Kaprov's images seem to find a new pulse and surprisingly hold together, the glue being her sense of style and color sensibility. Her career started as a small child, watching her father, a lawyer and amateur photographer, work in his darkroom in the Bronx. "He built an enlarging machine from the encasement of an old car light and I was totally fascinated as I watched him count out the seconds and develop his pictures," she recalls.

After graduating from City University in New York, Kaprov took a year of advanced study in fine arts at Dartmouth. Also trained as a painter, she works in a variety of mediums. She now lives and works in Brooklyn Heights. Her early photographs in the 1980s took the theme of the city. Done in manipulated color before the days of Photoshop the prints were done on a color Xerox machine, which, though a printmaking process, was based on photographic scanning.

Speaking with Kaprov is a lesson in enlightenment. Though she works extensively in Photoshop, she admits she is not a wizard. "Photoshop is a tool," she says, "and once it becomes an end in itself you have lost the game. I am not a `techie.' I am very concept driven and believe that beauty is the essential ingredient in any kind of intellectual concept. If a work is not beautiful it will never communicate right. Every artist needs to communicate something of value and beauty is the way we do that."

The Random Factor
Kaprov uses the term "randomness" which she says fascinates and frightens her at the same time. It is always her silent partner and means making something out of nothing. Her inspiration was the musician John Cage who she says would come to her studio and talk about randomness, putting sounds or ideas together visually, putting together things of such disparate nature that you see them differently. "He was the one who introduced me to randomness," she says, "trying to infuse as much unpredictability in my work as possible within a very large framework of control and letting elements come into the work with very little internal editing."

One of Kaprov's most beautiful installations is "Precambrian Waltz," commissioned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1994. Eight ft high and 40 ft long, the photomontage is mounted on aluminum panels to form a curved wall. Using traditional methods of photography the piece was divided into narrow columns, scored at the junction of the grids so it appears seamless. Though it comes apart, it appears as one solid work. The idea was to deal with motion and transportation and though the content didn't have to be literal, it needed some kind of metaphorical suggestion of motion or connection. "I had a lot of esthetic freedom and I based the piece on a musical motif," Kaprov says. "I used primary colors and thought in terms of 3/4 waltz time. You see the three parts to the work--how the red, yellow, and blue loosely interconnect even though it is a grid. It's a very painterly piece and poetic though I had to work within some kind of restriction."

Each square within the grids is its own pictorial statement and if it were taken apart from the rest and enlarged, could stand on its own as a complete picture. We might think of the squares as a deck of cards Kaprov puts together, shuffling them around until she finds the best combination. Up close certain pictures are easily recognizable; as we step farther away other images become familiar. In these large works she wants a piece to change as the person sees it. With distance it becomes just pure color and warmth. "You do have to have a very global kind of focus," Kaprov says, "not just to express ourselves as artists but to communicate something about how we see the world so it will be enriched by our work in some way. It sounds like a very lofty idea--art won't stop wars or cure disease but hopefully it can make life a little more interesting."

Kaprov has recently won a commission for a 54 ft piece for the Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. The concept of "Corporeal City" is the marriage of science and art, taking the human body and incorporating that into a very generalized urban landscape.

The Color Ingredient
Color is the major ingredient that makes Kaprov's work so delicious. I asked about the flower prints that are created with her Nikon Coolpix 900 digital camera. In this series, actual flowers and plants are obscured, dismembered, and distorted to the point where their initial identities become transformed into fragmentary, interwoven entities. At first glance the pictures appear deceptively whole and ordered. Close-up, fragments of damaged leaves, plants, and flowers become increasingly evident as their forms and colors dissolve. "These prints are a staged still life tableaux, meticulously constructed from parts of these living plants and flowers," Kaprov says. "I constructed a special light box that is illuminated on all four sides and holds the living objects in place while I photograph them from all angles with my camera. There are from 4-20 digital layers or scans combined in each final print. The scans remain unaltered in form and color, thus retaining the richly hued, almost obsessive details of nature. They are then assembled in Photoshop to recreate the completed image and printed, usually 11x15 or 16x20 on a rich vellum or Somerset Satin paper.

"I want to get that fantastic sense of detail in my flower prints without going macro," Kaprov explains. "There are a lot of essentials in the prints so I don't want to go so close that all you see are the veins and small elements of each petal. I want to show as much in there as possible formed into a tight pattern so we can examine how we see fragmented or altered nature, something not completely natural but not artificial either--somewhere in between."

These prints are very structured and those moments of randomness are not present. It is more like arranging things on a stage set and must be done quickly as flowers die and become difficult to handle. The images are altered very little. Recently a group of the flower prints were enlarged as cibachromes to 4x6 ft and mounted at the Warner Lambert Company in New Jersey. "They were outrageous," Kaprov says, "and I was afraid they were going to look ominous in there but it turned out we are all happy!"

I had to ask--do you ever just go out shooting? "Yes," she replied. "I have just started to take my digital camera on the subway train. I also walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Ground Zero and photographed through the gate--pictures of the skyline minus the World Trade Center. It was still smoking there. The bars of the gates look like prison bars. I call the pictures `The Gates of Hell.'"