Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate
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John Pfahl
Born in New York, NY, in 1939
Resides in Buffalo, NY

John Pfahl was born on February 17, 1939, in New York, New York, and raised in New Jersey. He received his BFA from Syracuse University, in the School of Art, and his MA from Syracuse University, in the School of Communications. He has appeared in over 100 group and solo exhibitions and his work is represented in at least forty-four public and corporate collections. These include the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and The Art Institute of Chicago.

John Pfahl’s first major series is entitled Altered Landscapes (1974–78). He has a very innovative way of looking at nature. While the photographs may appear to be illustrating simple landscapes, his painstaking use of geometric shapes proves that they can be transformed into something completely different. In another body of work, Power Places (1981–84), his focus rests on the unleashing power that nuclear power plants withhold. Many environmentalists view these photographs as chilling visions because they portray the true damage being done.

As represented in this show, his Smoke series (1988–90) are images that make industrial smoke sumptuous, yet disturbing and somewhat frightening. In viewing these photographs, one can almost smell the waste emitted by the power plants. This is what makes John Pfahl so influential. For the past thirty years he has been creating images of nature that get inside of one’s mind and provoke thinking. Like other fine-art photographers, he allows us to see something that may have been forgotten, or never even seen at all.

Pictures in Gallery


Works Description

With his Smoke series, John Pfahl portrays irony beautifully. The smoke emanating from different electric-power plants and industries displays a never-before-seen striking beauty, when viewed through Pfahl’s lenses. The picturesque landscapes of cities such as Lackawanna, Niagara Falls, and Tonawanda (all in New York State) are exposed to the man-made pollution and carefully captured by the artist. As he explains in A Distanced Land, the smell of the sadly familiar smoke repels all away from it, and chokes those who dare come too close. But somehow, with its rhythmic change of colors and shapes, along with the help of nature’s wind and lights, these scenes attract the artistic eye. Pfahl describes the hypnotic effect as “like suddenly being hurled into a roaring cataract, an erupting volcano, or a violent storm at sea.” The work is in fact so amazing to comprehend, that one might interpret it as a sign of lost hope, with nature accepting pollution, and making it a part of the landscape. John Pfahl has taken the simple idea of taking pictures of smoke rising from power plants and created an exciting collection for all to admire.

Selected Bibliography

“John Pfahl Portfolio.” Weblink.

Jussim, Estelle, and Cheryl Brutvan. A Distanced Land: The Photographs of John Pfahl. Buffalo, New York: The University of Mexico Press in association with Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1990.

Pfahl, John. A Distanced Land: The Photographs of John Pfahl. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, in assoc. with Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1990.

________. “Power and Smoke: two statements.” Aperture no. 120 (summer 1990): 24–9.

________. "SMOKE." Weblink.