JOHN PFAHL ARTIST STATEMENTS


<PICTURE WINDOWS>

<POWER PLACES>

<MISSILE/GLYPHS>

<WATERFALLS>

<SMOKE>

<PERMUTATIONS ON THE PICTURESQUE>

<THE VERY RICH HOURS OF A COMPOST PILE>


<PILES>

<LUMINOUS RIVER>

<BALI SUITE>

<ARCADIA REVISITED>

<Métamorphoses de la Terre>
















   

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PICTURE WINDOWS

While making my "picture window" photographs, I came to think that every room was like a gigantic camera forever pointed at the same view. In the dictionary, of course, the word camera in Latin means chamber or room.
I searched the country for these cameras and their views: the more unusual or picturesque, the better. It was often hard to tell from the outside what could be seen from the inside, so I was usually surprised when I discovered a scene in its new context.
Strangers with puzzled looks were amazingly cooperative in letting me into their rooms with my photographic gear. They let me take down the curtains, wash the windows, and rearrange the furniture. Often, too, they expressed their desire to share their view with others, as if it were a nondepletable treasure.
I liked the idea that my photographic vantage points were not solely determined by myself. They were predetermined by others, sometimes years earlier, and patiently waited for me to discover them.

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POWER PLACES

I have frequently noticed that the electric power companies have chosen the most picturesque locations in America in which to situate their enormous plants. This is likely due to a need for rivers and waterfalls to propel their turbines, or for lakes and oceans to cool their reactors. It may also attest to the importance placed upon being isolated from large population centers for safety considerations. Whatever the reason, it sometimes seems that there is an almost transcendental connection between power and the natural landscape. Even the names given to the plants conjure up an Arcadian vision of the land: Seabrook, Crystal River, Indian Point, Palo Verde.
For me, power plants in the natural landscape represent only the most extreme example of man’s willful domination over the wilderness. It is the arena where the needs and ambitions of an ever-expanding population collide most forcefully with the finite resources of nature.
It is not without trepidation that I have appropriated the codes of "the Sublime" and "the Picturesque" in my work. After all, serious photographers have spent most of this century trying to expunge such extravagances from their art. The tradition lives on, mostly in calendars and picture postcards. I was challenged to rework and revitalize that which had been so roundly denigrated. However, by making the landscape appear so romantic, would it promote the naïve impression that these power plants were living in blissful harmony with nature? Would my work be co-opted by industry? I needn’t have worried. For the most part, the work has been received in the same spirit as it was intended.
In order to make my observations rise to the metaphoric plane, I deliberately searched out a variety of power sources in addition to nuclear, including fossil fuel, hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal. I felt that concentrating on nuclear power alone would detract from my larger ambitions and reduce the project to a specific political agenda. I gradually learned that the other, supposedly more benign, sources of energy all had their dark sides, that the actual harm done to the environment was at least as disturbing as the potential harm from nuclear mishaps. Familiar dangers seem to get preempted by unfamiliar ones.
There seems to be no easy, black-and-white solution to the environmental dilemma. I have become uncomfortable with reducing the tangle to a generic, ideologically correct version of reality. As Estelle Jussim wrote, it is almost impossible for a single photograph to state both the problem and the solution. I want to make photographs whose very ambiguity provokes thought, rather than cuts it off prematurely. I want to make pictures that work on a more mysterious level, that approach the truth by a more circuitous route.


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MISSILE/GLYPHS

Rock and metal. Metal and rock.
When I think of my year in the Great American Southwest, I always get a physical sensation of the hard, the dry, and the shiny. From my base in New Mexico, I ranged across the treeless countryside trying to make photographic sense of the new kind of beauty that confronted my East-coast eyes. I was astounded, as is almost everyone, by the natural beauty of the vast, silent spaces and the radiant colors. But, rather than photograph the sublimity of nature, I found myself drawn to two very different subjects that represented extreme examples of human endeavor.
I was fascinated by the petroglyphs I found animating cliff walls and boulders all over the landscape. These drawings, some of them hundreds of years old, were left at campsites and sacred precincts by the ancestors of today’s Native Americans. While frequently depicting animals, hunters, dancers, masks and other recognizable subjects, they also entered the realm of the abstract with lines, circles, and more complex patterns. Archaeologists have long puzzled over the symbolic language of these incisions and paintings, but seem to be unable to come up with precise translations or even intentions. The mystery surrounding the art and its artists endures.
Horseshoe Canyon, almost inaccessible in the heart of Utah’s red rock country, is the site of the most impressive and enigmatic of these drawings. The "Great Gallery" has been called America’s equivalent of the cave paintings at Alta Mira or Lasceaux. As I set up my tripod and camera among the boulders at the foot of an overhanging cliff and studied the long row of towering masked figures, I had the uncanny feeling hat they were alive and present. I seemed to be making direct contact with the human minds and beings that had made these drawings long ago. Protected only by falcons and owls and by a remoteness not yet breached by vandals, these stoic figures appeared to symbolize the very birth of civilization.
If the Great Gallery represented the beginning, I discovered the perfect emblems for the end of culture when I visited the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque. Decommissioned bombs and missiles from the late, great Cold War were displayed there, all tidied up, on the blinding asphalt of a large parking lot and inside a cavernous hangar. It was a place where the literary abstractions of the Nuclear Age were given a concrete and seductive reality. I could walk right up to a Minuteman Missile and touch its hardware. I could see the intense sunlight bouncing off the molecules in its iridescent skin. The sheer physical beauty was overwhelming. I found the most resonating of these instruments of destruction not outside, among the Snarks, Titans, Terriers, and Bomarcs, but inside, in air-conditioned semi-darkness. The infamous "Fat Man". A duplicate of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki (the one that would have been used has the first one missed its target), as there on the floor emanating its appalling aura.
When I made my first photographs of the two very different subjects -the missiles and the petroglyphs – there was no connection between them in my mind. But, one day, when I was shuffling transparencies around on my light table, I was struck by the unexpected formal resemblances. Colors, shapes and textures drew certain images together and the combinations seemed to vibrate with poetic significance. The relationship between the two subjects fluctuated at each viewing. Enigmatic aspects of each seemed to lend meaning to the other. When the photograph of the shadowy figures of the Great Gallery was paired with that of "Fat Man", for instance, I couldn’t help but think of the legendary silhouettes burned into pavements by the atomic firestorms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After making a number of these connections, however, I became wary of simple interpretations that assumed fixed and final meanings. On the contrary, over time, there seemed to be a tug-of-war reflecting events and changes in the larger world. The recent ending of the Cold War in Europe and the new specter of nuclear destruction in the Middle East shifted the psychic weight from on half of the diptych to the other and back again.
One friend’s bleak appraisal, however, did strike me as having special relevance. He predicted that, when the time came that bombs and missiles had unleashed their final destructive force in the world ("bombed us back to the Stone Age", as he put it), the only vestiges of centuries of human culture that remained might be simple drawings here and there on rocks and cliffs.

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WATERFALLS

Waterfalls in the United States tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either great sources of industrial power or conveyors of aesthetic power and beauty. Most of the waterfalls in the eastern half of the country have been heavily used and abused by humankind. Paper mills, electric plants, and other signs of industrialization frequently have co-opted these views.
Waterfalls in the West are far less common and tend to be protected in national or state parks. Many are spectacular tourist destinations and some, such as Yosemite Falls and the Great Falls of the Yellowstone have joined Niagara Falls in becoming national icons.
Waterfalls photographed close-up and isolated all look very much the same. I chose a panoramic format and wide-angle lenses to provide context and to complicate the meaning and formal qualities of the images.

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SMOKE

The prodigious display of smoke bursting forth from stacks of the Bethlehem Steel coke operation in Lackawanna, New York can best be seen from a low slag bluff overlooking the plant from the north. A narrow boat channel of dark water separates me from the silhouetted buildings bathed in the radiance of Lake Erie. By the simplest act of looking through the enormous telephoto lens of my Hasselblad, I thrust myself into a phantasmagoria of light and color. Simultaneously attracted and repelled, I feel myself engulfed in a truly awesome spectacle of nature. It is like suddenly being hurled into a roaring cataract, an erupting volcano, or a violent storm at sea. Alarm whistles blow and smoke discharges into the sky, expanding and changing form far more rapidly than I can imagine possible, and, at its absolute zenith, dissipating into thin air before I can take another breath.
The presentation has its own geyser-like rhythms and rationale, and fifteen to twenty minutes pass before another discharge takes place. Doubtless the efficiencies of the internal workings of the mill dictate a logic for the timings, but from my removed vantagepoint I can only see them as part of an irrational process, terrifying in its capriciousness. I wait again for what seems an interminable time, and just when I impatiently fear that the workmen have closed down the line ending the show for the day, the whole process suddenly starts over again. New colors, shapes, and textures arise from other stacks in different hallucinatory combinations.
By good fortune, the prevailing winds blow the smoke away from where I like to stand, and I can see the dark bundles make their way inland. Occasionally, however, the clouds come right at me and I become immersed in a lung-searing atmosphere of toxicity. I grab at my equipment and stumble back to the car, trying all the while not to inhale too deeply. I recall the recent newspaper stories reporting that this particular plant is first in statewide rankings of highly toxic emissions, discharging 1.4 million tons of benzene alone into the air each year.
Later, at home, it strikes me that the smell of the smoke, overpowering at full strength, is unnervingly familiar to me. In much more dilute form, it wafts by on certain balmy days when I am working in the garden. I am hardly conscious of it. It is one of the many familiar aromas, along with the newly turned earth and the freshly cut grass, that I have come to identify with the notion of home

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PERMUTATIONS ON THE PICTURESQUE

People think the camera steals their soul. Places, I am convinced, are affected in the opposite direction. The more they are photographed (or drawn and painted) the more soul they seem to accumulate.
Over the years, I have made many pilgrimages to places that have been hallowed by photographic worship. The Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were early magnets, as were the great waterfalls: Niagara, Kaaterskill, and Yosemite. Burnished to a luster by the caressing eyes of thousands of artists and photographers, these places had become much more than their physical presence. They had become ideas. The most sacred of these places to landscape photographers of my generation was, of course, Point Lobos with its dozens of famous viewpoints.
I often wondered why I was attracted to certain landscapes and not others and why my photographs (and depictions by other artists) looked the way they did, Archetypes imprinted on my mind started me on a search that eventually and inevitably took me to the British Isles and Italy. The marvelous book, "The search for the Picturesque", by Malcolm Andrews was a revelation and led me to visit oft-depicted places in the English Lake District and in North and South Wales.
West’s First Station on Lake Windermere was the late-eighteenth century equivalent of Point Lobos. It was the most highly recommended station (or picture –spot) in Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes (1778). From the picture-windowed bays of the octagonal "pleasure house", the three most celebrated views in the English Lakes could be savored by means of the Claude grass or captured in sketched and watercolors I stumbled upon it quite fortuitously by following the sketchy directions in on of the early guidebooks. The place was now a ruin and the three famous views were mostly obscured by trees that had matured in the intervening two centuries. It was, nevertheless, still thrilling to stand where the idea of "the picturesque" made one of its first appearances.
Tintern Abbey was another ruin that figured prominently in the story of the Picturesque and turned out to be much easier to find. Nestled close to the River Wye in South Wales, it is one of the most-visited of all places in Great Britain, and has been so since William Gilpin first published his guide Observations on the River Wye in 1782. In this lofty space, I tried to find the exact viewpoints from which Sir John Herschel took his camera lucida drawings in 1829. The ivy and brambles, which had softened the outlines of the old stone walls and given the place much of its romance, had long since been removed in the name of preservation. The ruin itself remained essentially the same and was structurally in much better shape. The column stump, upon which Herschel must have been seated while taking his drawing, was still there, waiting for me to sit upon its as I made my own delineation of the scene.
The Grand Tour of the Continent, with a focus on Italy, was a popular extension of [picturesque travel for the British aristocracy in the early 19th century. It was while on his honeymoon on the shores of Lake Como in 1833, that William Henry Fox Talbot made his famously poor attempts at drawing with the camera lucida. It has been observed that the "idea" of the invention of photography first came to him there, as a direct result of the discouragement he felt in trying to capture the picturesque scenes. Two of those drawings were taken from the front steps of the Villa Melzi in Bellagio, each facing in slightly different directions. Except for the addition of a lily pond, little had changed when AI made my own visit there more recently. Somehow I felt that if Fox Talbot had had more time and more drawing talent, he would have filled in the interval between his two drawings and made a complete panorama. Now, 163 years later, I was able to use his great invention to elaborate on his youthful dream of capturing and fixing the fleeting image. In doing so, I may also have added another little bit to the soul of this extraordinary place.

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THE VERY RICH HOURS OF A COMPOST PILE

The title of this series pays homage to the fifteenth century illuminated manuscript entitled "Tres riches heurs du Duc de Berry." In it the Limbourg brothers depicted, in minute and loving detail, the passage of the seasons over various medieval landscapes.
My Compost pile, situated in a hidden corner of the garden, constantly changes with the passing months. The rich efflorescence of rotting vegetable matter creates a daybook of both the memorable and mundane meals that grace my table.

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PILES


Ansel Adams had his beloved Sierras. I seek out the more elusive mountains on the lake plain near my home in Buffalo, New York. I try to imbue these piles of raw and recycled materials, through judicious use of light, atmosphere and scale, with the majesty of mountains I recall from summers in the Rockies and the Alps.


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LUMINOUS RIVER

I became captivated with the Susquehanna years ago while driving from my home in Buffalo to Washington, D.C. The highway follows the river for about fifty miles between Shamokin Dam and Harrisburg – fifty miles of constantly changing river views. Cutting through five mountain ridges, spotted with wooded islands large and small, and featuring wide glassy surfaces interspersed with riffles and rapids, the Susquehanna appeared to be a condensed catalog of classic river landscapes. The light on that first occasion, and on many subsequent visits, was transcendent. The river seemed to soften the air through which it flowed, conjuring up tones of 19th century American landscape painting.
While the Susquehanna was, indeed, occasionally visited and painted by such Hudson River School artists as Jasper Cropsey and Thomas Doughty, it did not receive a fraction of attention paid to the Hudson itself. Not easily navigable because of rocks and rapids, and not in close proximity to major cities, it clearly proved more of a challenge for artists to explore and paint. It was, arguably, more "picturesque" than the Hudson. In fact, the Susquehanna closely resembled (and still resembles) the fabled River Wye in Wales, where William Gilpin, in the late 18th century, developed the landscape paradigms that so greatly influenced masses of English watercolorists. Nevertheless, the 448-mile long Susquehanna and its 240-mile long West Branch languished largely ignored by the heavy-hitters of 19th century landscape painting.
So here I come, in the early part of the 21st century, with my large view camera and sturdy tripod, to try and rectify the imbalance. My project references early American landscape art, particularly that of painters in the Luminist mode. The timelessness, stillness, clarity, and especially, the sensitivity to light in the paintings of John Frederick Kensett, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Martin Johnson Heade have been a particular source of inspiration. Two early photographers also proved relevant: William H. Rau, with his photographs of Susquehanna and other river scenes taken while he was working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Seneca Ray Stoddard, Luminist photographer of Lake George and the Adirondacks. Of course, my greatest inspiration was the Susquehanna itself, which I followed systematically from its origin in Otsego Lake to its mouth in the Chesapeake Bay, enticed, always, by what lay waiting around the next bend.


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BALI SUITE

Just after the rainy season, the island of Bali is cloaked by an amazing green and becomes a shimmering world where nuances of just one color make up an entire spectrum. Terraced rice fields spread over the slopes of ancient volcanoes, stepping their way up the steepest hillsides. They compose a landscape that is almost totally man-made, but whose undulant designs seem as natural as waves of water or sand. Rice and its cultivation has been the basic element of Balinese culture and civilization since at least the 11th century. Altars to the rice goddess Bhatari Sri, laden with offerings, dot the fields. The optical pleasure a visitor feels in surveying these viridescent patterns is quickened by the buzz of dragonflies and timelessness. Green revives the world yet again and suffuses the atmosphere. The mind reels, and to borrow from the great English poet Marvell, annihilates all else to a green thought in a green shade.

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ARCADIA REVISITED

Initial proposal for a project of photography along the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario:

What I find most interesting about the Niagara River is the way in which the Nineteenth Century is palpably evident under the veneer of present-day reality. Almost every site and viewpoint along its varied thirty-six mile course is laden with history. Painters, sketchers and photographers by the hundreds have discovered, rediscovered and consecrated the most picturesque aspects of the rapids, falls, gorge and shoreline. Thoughts and feelings of the Beautiful, the Awesome and the Sublime are still provoked today, even amidst the proliferation of hydroelectric installations, chemical plants, and tourist facilities.

In recent years, I have been using the art of photography to research the ways in which the pictorial strategies of the Nineteenth Century color the way in which the American landscape is apprehended by today's viewers. I have returned to the sites that so inspired early American artists: the Hudson and Susquehanna Rivers in the East and Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley in the West, among many others. I have confronted the changes wought by superhighways, dams, nuclear plants, and urban sprawl, to try to discover how the underlying aesthetic could still reveal itself. Photography, of course, is the perfect medium for the investigation. It can reveal the truth of present day specifics and particularities, while at the same time, by conscious choice of lighting and pictorial structure, suggest the aesthetic legacy of the past.

In the Niagara River project, I propose to use the working methods of Amos W. Sangster (as evidenced in his monumental portfolio of etchings The Niagara River from Lake Ere to Lake Ontario) as my model. I, too, will try to spend my days hiking along the river, exploring with passion its nooks and crannies. I will use his drawings as points of departure for my own art. I will find the places where he stood and discover which aspects of the scene have changed and which have perservered. I will try to recapture his affection for the river and to understand and reinterpret his tender and expressive responses to the scene. And, it seems to me, it will be of utmost importance to be true to the specifics of the river and its shoreline as it exists today.

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Métamorphoses de la Terre

     Echoing his landmark “Altered Landscapes” from the 1970s. John Pfahl’s latest series of photographs embraces the digital age. The concept of “Métamorphoses de la Terre” came to him while reviewing some pictures of lava formations surrounding a Hawaiian volcano that he took in 1993, but never printed. The flow-patterned, hard basalt landscapes prompted him to experiment with his computer to simulate accelerated geological forces of nature. What was formerly liquid and then solidified, magically, through his ministrations, became liquid once again.

    Pfahl went on to review some thirty years worth of negatives and transparencies made intermittently while working on other projects in the deserts of the American Southwest. Many of the landscapes photographed were formed over long periods of time by the forces of fluid dynamics. Multiple layers of limestone, sandstone and mudstone deposited by vast inland seas over the millenia were sculpted by wind and water into an aggregation of different shapes, textures and colors. They represented for the artist a manifestation of deep history written in nature. During his travels, Pfahl could not resist photographing bizarre geological formations in the ancient terrains of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming. In this exhibit, the baroque, digitally inspired transformations he applied to his photographs were, in many cases, no more extreme than the originals he found in the landscape.

     “Métamorphoses de la Terre,” the title chosen for this series, comes from the late nineteenth-century French translation of a tome by the great English philosopher and scientist Humphrey Davy.

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