John Pfahl, Photographer Who Played With Landscapes, Dies at 81

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John Pfahl, an inventive landscape photographer renowned for manipulating the natural world by inserting into it objects like rope, foil, lace, tape and, once, a pie pan, died on April 15 in Buffalo, N.Y. He was 81.

His sister-in-law, Cathy Pfahl, said that the cause was the new coronavirus, but that he had also had heart problems, mild dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Mr. Pfahl developed a reputation as a masterly if quirky landscape photographer over more than 40 years. In addition to his manipulations, he found beauty in peculiar vistas like the belching smoke of a coke plant in Lackawanna, N.Y., the rotting fruit and vegetables of his compost pile, and a stately hill of road salt — often as statements about the environmental impact of industrialization.

“I want to make pictures that work on a more mysterious level, that approach the truth by a more circuitous route,” he wrote in an artist’s statement on his website.

In “Altered Landscapes,” a series of predigital manipulated photos that Mr. Pfahl shot in the 1970s, he brought playfulness and visual pun-making to his work. In “Triangle, Bermuda,” he laid a triangle of black string that led from a beach in Bermuda to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

In another landscape, he parodied Ansel Adams’s famous photograph “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” by placing a pie pan among boulders at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The pan appears to be the same size and of similar brightness as the distant moon directly above it. He called the picture “Moonrise Over Pie Pan.”

Some of his photographs may seem whimsical, but there was serious conceptual rationale and intricate mathematical calculations behind his image tinkering.

“It’s a witty reflection on how we tend to conflate pictures of the natural world with the natural world itself,” said Lisa Hostetler, the curator in charge of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y., which has a large collection of Mr. Pfahl’s work. (He was a longtime trustee there.)

By inserting mundane objects into landscapes, Ms. Hostetler added, Mr. Pfahl was making a point about how cameras distort three-dimensional space. “He was showing us that while we believe in a picture, it looks real, it looks normal, but it’s actually false,” she said.

Decades later, he embraced digital technology to alter pictures of pastoral scenes in the British Isles.

John Alfred Pfahl was born on Feb. 17, 1939, in Manhattan and raised in Wanaque, N.J., where he grew up hiking local wilderness trails, an early introduction to the natural world. His father, Hans, was a floor manager for a series of factories, and his mother, Anna (Gerhardt) Pfahl, was a homemaker. Both were German immigrants.

Mr. Pfahl graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1961 from the Syracuse University School of Art, where he had majored in advertising but found his career path when he took elective courses in photography.

After two years in the Army in an engineering battalion at Fort Belvoir, Va., he worked as an assistant to Paul Elfenbein, an advertising photographer in Manhattan, then moved to Los Angeles to assist Herbert Bruce Cross, an architectural photographer.

Returning to Syracuse University, he earned a master’s degree in color photography in 1968. Soon after, he was hired to teach photography at the Rochester Institute Technology, where he remained until 1985, giving him time to pursue photography full-time.

Mr. Pfahl did not ignore magnificent landscapes, like waterfalls, but he often photographed them within the context of the industrialization that sometimes shrouded their beauty.

In the 1980s, not long after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, he photographed the picturesque settings where power companies often built nuclear plants, dams and generators. He invariably set the power plants in the far reaches of the pictures, letting their lush surroundings dominate.

“For me, power plants in the natural landscape represent only the most extreme example of man’s willful domination over the wilderness,” Mr. Pfahl wrote. “It is the arena where the needs and ambitions of an ever-expanding population collide most forcefully with the finite resources of nature.”

He also found inspiration closer to home: the decaying watermelon rinds, pumpkin shreds, pears, fennel and oranges in his compost pile, which he called a “daybook of both memorable and mundane meals that grace my table.”

When the pictures, “From the Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile,” were exhibited at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery in Buffalo in 1995, Richard Huntington, the art critic of The Buffalo News, praised them for displaying unerring composition and “vivid depiction of rot.”

“Is nothing ever amiss in a John Pfahl photograph?” Mr. Huntington wrote. “His vision is so controlled, so precise, that I suspect that when the world sees him coming it quickly rearranges itself, getting all the various parts in order, just like someone does with the house when they see an honored guest coming up the walkway.”

He found inspiration, too, in piles of leaves, a sand pit, a hill filled with demolition material and a tire farm near his home. Adams may have had the Sierras but, as Mr. Pfahl wrote, he had these modest mountains to call his own.

“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,” he wrote.

Mr. Pfahl, who died in a Buffalo hospital, is survived by his wife, Bonnie Gordon, an artist and a former professor of design at Buffalo State College whom he married in a roadside chapel in Albuquerque, N.M., and a brother, Walter.

In the 1970s, Mr. Pfahl traveled around the United States asking strangers to let him shoot landscapes from inside their homes. Many accommodated him, intrigued by his idiosyncratic vision. He would then take down their curtains, wash their windows and move their furniture for a series that he called “Picture Windows.”

“I liked the idea that my photographic vantage points were not solely determined by myself,” he wrote. “They were predetermined by others, sometimes years earlier, and patiently waited for me to discover them.”


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