4.08.2009

John Pfahl - Early Work

John Pfahl has been making beautiful and often uncanny photographs of evidence of the human hand in the natural world since the 70's. I'll post some of his later work at another time, but for now, I'd like to focus on his early work, which was being made in the early days of the Environmentalist movement. An early series "Altered Landscapes" created from 1974-78 (first three images below) seems to come at the idea of human intervention in the landscape straight on. Throughout his long career, his work continues to explore ways of making pictures that observe the intersections of nature and culture, the natural world and the built environment.


Pfahl's "Power Places" series was created between 1980 and 1984, and documents, in anything but Becher-like neutrality, power plants in their seemingly unlikely and gorgeous surrounds. Though Pfahl selects subject matter like a documentarian, choosing one subject and then making a 'record' of sorts through repetition, I believe that it is his passion for his subjects (and for their beauty) that leads him to make these sumptuous moody framings, and eschew typical documentary disassociation from his subjects.

Below is the artist statement posted on John's site for "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.












More of John Pfahl's intriguing work can be found at his website.

And on a more personal note, this last image is of the Pacific Gas and Electric Plant in Morro Bay. I recognize it because my mother grew up in San Luis Obispo, which is just a short way inland from Morro Bay. I have been to this beautiful site many times, and often wondered at the power plant "marring" the view. Morro rock is even larger and more impressive that it appears in Pfahl's photograph, where it seems pushed back by the power plant. It is the last in a chain of nine former volcanoes called the nine sisters that lead from San Luis' Bishop Peak out to the sea. I've climbed Bishop many times with my family, and watched otters and seals swim off the shore of Morro rock. At this time of year the peaks are so beautiful, green with new grass and that gives way to gray jagged rocks, launching from the tops of the hills into the shrouds of low hanging clouds. Their flanks are spattered with the purple of lupine and the neon orange of the native California poppy. San Luis is a vibrant and charming town and wouldn't 'run' without the power from this plant, but it has managed so far to keep a good balance between the natural and the man-made. Farmers outside of town are banding together to keep their land from being developed, and the people of SLO tend to be the sort who would rather walk along a rocky beach than a paved in mall. The nine sisters are ancient and will doubtless remain ages to come, but I think the end of the age of the smokestack and the power plant may be closer at hand.

My grandparents for years have actively worked on the Central Coast against the spread of destructive and unsafe nuclear power, initially trying to block the Diablo Canyon power plant
(I know, great name, right?) from being put in, and then buying land down coast from the plant to protect it from development --- land which they have since given to the Nature Conservancy. The Diablo plant is also run by Pacific Gas and Electric and although it has never had a major issue, it's presence remains a worrying concern for residents who worry about the safety of the plant and its by-products. California has since banned the approval of new nuclear reactors since the late 1970s because of concerns over waste disposal.

As a small child, I remember seeing hand-drawn posters in my grandparents' house from protests, saying "Go Sunny with Solar, NOT Deadly with Nukes" -- and remember similar slogans from bumper stickers on my Grandma's dark blue Volkswagon's Beetle. One wonders what would have happened if we had started trying to develop affordable solar technology in the 70's in earnest and with the government support we are now only beginning to see materialize. Maybe we would not now be having to reinvestigate the use of nuclear power as a last ditch solution in the race to stop climate change.

In any case, as you can probably see, my wonderful grandparents have played a big part in my life as an environmentalist. It's because of people like them, and people like all the other artists, activists and thinkers featured on this blog that we have made as much progress as we have. May we all live to see our goals come to fruition. To borrow another slogan off a hand-drawn poster: "Keep on Truckin!"

This post is dedicated to my passionate, hard-working Grandfather, Bruce Miller II, who strived to see the world with unclouded eyes, and worked his whole life to see justice created, not only for the people on this planet, but for the planet itself. We'll miss you Papa.

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