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Remembering John Pfahl Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

24 April 2020

American photographer John Pfahl whose imaginative approach to photography inspired generations died last week in Buffalo from Covid-19. He was 81.

Pfahl was born in New York in February 1939 and grew up in Wanaque, N.J. He received a BFA from Syracuse University in the School of Art and an MA from Syracuse in the School of Communications.

He was a full professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, teaching photography there from 1968 to 1983. He was also a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque before teaching at the University of Buffalo.

Pfahl was an early adapter of new digital photographic procedures both in printing and for digitizing his negatives. He is best known for his innovative landscape photography including Altered Landscape, his first major series, which featured unmanipulated color photographs he created from 1974 through 1978.

'I want to make photographs whose very ambiguity provokes thought, rather than cuts it off prematurely.'

In these pictures Pfahl played tricks with perspective by placing man-made objects in the landscape to mislead the viewer. For the past 30 years, Pfahl created images that focused on the force of nature and how humans have affected it.

But to really appreciate what he was up to, you have only to read the artist statements accompanying his work.

In Picture Windows, for example, he played on the concept of camera as room, its Latin definition, by thinking of every room as a gigantic camera trained on the same view forever. "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," he wrote.

And in Power Places, he observed, "electric power companies have chosen the most picturesque locations in America in which to situate their enormous plants." The plants represent "only the most extreme example of man's willful domination over the wilderness."

But other examples were just as problematic to the environment, he came to understand. "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."

In 1990, Albright-Knox Art Gallery organized A Distanced Land: The Photographs of John Pfahl, a major retrospective of his work that toured Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta. That same year he received an honorary doctorate from Niagara University.

Pfahl has appeared in over 100 group and solo exhibitions, and his work is represented in at least 45 public and corporate collections, including the Eastman House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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