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Trees Lounge...

As Do Rivers, Bushes, Bridges, Ponds, and Other Shrubbery In John Pfahl’s Photos

John Pfahl’s “Banyan Tree”

By J. Bowers | Posted 5/3/2006

John Pfahl: Luminous River and Extreme Horticulture

At UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery through May 26

Above all else, New York-based photographer John Pfahl is a documentarian. His images show landscapes and architecture exactly as they are, using the camera as an instrument to capture what he sees with the naked eye.

This approach is refreshing. You never get the sense that Pfahl is trying too hard to create meaning or composition—as an artist, he stands aside and lets his subject carry each piece. Waterways have caught Pfahl’s eye several times in his 45-year career. During the 1980s, his straightforward, uncomplicated photographic surveys of the Niagara River were collected as a book, Arcadia Revisited. He’s also completed a collection of American waterfalls. Most recently, Pfahl turned his lens toward the Susquehanna River, systematically documenting the waterway’s journey from its source at New York’s Otsego Lake to its mouth, the all too familiar Chesapeake Bay.

Unfortunately, it is this familiarity that lessens the impact of Pfahl’s Luminous River series. Created with a large-view camera, Pfahl’s images of the Susquehanna are classic, accurate, and feel somewhat bland. As Marylanders, we are intimately familiar with this river, often recognized as the oldest or second-oldest major river system in the world, and this intimacy gives Pfahl’s pictures an unfortunate quotidian feel.

Still, given the river’s status as a major waterway for the northeastern United States, the unspoiled, unabashedly naturalistic quality of Pfahl’s pictures is impressive—by and large, his snapshots of the Susquehanna show very few signs of human interference or development. The river appears naked and innocent in images such as “Lake Otsego Sunrise,” an iconic, ethereal shot of mist rising off of a still sheet of water.

Pfahl’s fascination with architecture—an interest that’s found him turning the same observant eye toward power plants, steel factories, and other industrial structures in the past—creeps into his survey of the Susquehanna. Shots like “Morning Light on Railroad Viaduct,” taken in Harrisburg, Pa., and “Market Street Bridge” unobtrusively capture civilization’s attempt to negotiate and tame the river. The most interesting shot in the series is “Springtime View of Three Mile Island,” which frames the cooling towers of the infamous Pennsylvania nuclear plant with whiplike branches, as though Pfahl came upon the towers while walking toward the river’s edge, creating a stunning contrast between paranoid modernity and idyllic greenery.

On the other side of the gallery, Extreme Horticulture finds Pfahl documenting man’s age-old struggle to shape and control trees and shrubbery, alongside plant life’s eternal attempt to grow beyond the boundaries placed upon it. Some images are merely documents of other artists’ work. “Yew Hunt Scene” is a straightforward shot of famed topiary artist Henry Ladew’s most famous work, a clutch of hounds pursuing a fox. You can see the actual piece for yourself up in Monkton. “Jeff Koons’ Puppy” documents Koons’ internationally known steel and flower sculpture of a West Highland white terrier during its 2000 visit to Rockefeller Center; Pfahl photographed the giant floral dog’s head framed between skyscrapers. It’s a nice document of a minor art event, but the credit must go to Koons, not Pfahl. This type of photography, while cute, can often feel cheap in a gallery setting, where you’re meant to appreciate the photographer’s skill.

Other images feel more accidental and less dependent on other artists’ ingenuity. “Impatien Isles with Egret,” taken in Disney World’s Epcot Center, captures one ambitious landscaper’s ability to plant tiny islands of land-growing flowers in the middle of a waterway, with a Floridian water bird majestically holding court atop one of the clusters. The hot-pink flowers look unnaturally saturated with color, heightening the whimsical improbability of the scene. “Threadleaf Japanese Maple” looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, with fluffy fronds of reddish-pink leaves that engulf the ground beneath the tree. It’s interesting to look at, but it’s a case of right place, right time more than anything else. For all Pfahl’s photographic experience, you get the feeling that anyone with a camera could have snapped an equally impressive shot of this tree.

The point, then, is that Pfahl is the type of guy who would stop and take a professional picture of a tree, a riverbank, a bridge, and a topiary. His photographs are not particularly innovative—they merely show us what he’s seen for himself, whether mundane or fantastically bizarre. Interest and intrigue vary accordingly.

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