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John Pfahl's transformative photos at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery

Everything flows, Heraclitus is said to have said. Doubly so in a new series of photos by John Pfahl on display at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery.

The photos are digitally manipulated views of landscapes and earthscapes—geological subject matter such as hillside or mountainside stratigraphies—resulting in digital stretch and pull deformations of the natural landforms and earthforms.

Natural landforms and earthforms originally created by watery processes (the laying down of the stratigraphies under lakes and oceans through eons of time), followed by natural deformation processes (plate tectonic movements—the primary mechanism of the perpetual flux state of the living planet—and ceaseless sculpting of the landscape by rivers and other watery phenomena).

The digital manipulations amount to accelerations—that is to say, would-be accelerations, potential effects—of the natural processes continuously reshaping the natural environment.

The resultant imagery is of flow and run and blend on a geological scale. Much the way paint flows and runs and blends. So a basically painterly effect, applied to physical phenomena sometimes called painted (in a metaphorical usage) because of their spectacular natural colors and color patterns. (Colors and patterns delineating stratigraphies, which are then deformed by natural forces, and here also by the artist.)

A statement accompanying the exhibit says the series was inspired by the artist’s reviewing some of his old photos of lava formations. Solid rock in a plastic form representing a prior liquid state. But then all solids were once in a liquid state. And through digital methods could be made liquid again.

Such manipulative work is unusual for Pfahl, who is known for his straight photography of magnificent landscapes and the natural environment. But it harks back to some work he did in the 1970s involving minimal and non-invasive alterations of the environment. Such as a photo of several lines of white lace placed parallel and opposite to lacy lines of beach surf froth.

(In that case, the art of the lace imitated nature. In the current case, the art of the photographer, by his similarly non-invasive alteration of the natural environment—that is, alteration of photographic representations of the environment—imitates natural alteration effects.)

One or more of the photos seem vaguely homages to artist Charles Burchfield. Particularly the photo called Gooseneck Utah #2, the digital distortions of which seem reminiscent of the signature pulsation motifs Burchfield used to represent invisible life forces, field and forest élan vital.

The original photos are of radical landscapes and geological formations in such places as Lower Yellowstone Falls, Wyoming; Craters of the Moon, Idaho; the Grand Canyon, Arizona; Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii; and Watkins Glen, New York. Incidentally, only the manipulations were digital. The original photos were all taken with traditional analog equipment.

The apt (again in a double sense) title of the series is Métamorphoses de la Terre, the title of a French translation of a volume by the English chemist and inventor and poet Sir Humphry Davy. Davy did preliminary work on chemical affinities, the electronic properties of chemical elements by which they form compounds.

La terre—that would amount, basically, to elements. Métamorphoses (de laquelle)—that would be the creation and dissolution of compounds. And any further transformations, alterations, manipulations.

The Pfahl exhibit continues through December 1.

jack foran

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