John Pfahl, So Subtle It Hurts

Photographer John Pfahl passed away on 15th April 2020. Amidst the upheaval of a global pandemic it took the New York Times eight days to publish his obituary. This is a reflection of the level of disruption caused by Covid-19 and not of Pfahl’s importance.

Pfahl leaves behind a 40-year-long investigation into our (Western) relationship with the environment, making his work as important and timely as ever.

Between 1981 and 1984, Pfahl photographed Power Places, locations often out-of-sight and used to generate the electrical energy upon which our modern societies now depend. With “trepidation,” Pfahl depicted these locations as beautiful and sublime.

Trojan Nuclear Plant
Trojan Nuclear Plant, Columbia River, Oregon (October 1982) © John Pfahl

Pfahl was right to proceed with caution. Not only were these aesthetics associated with the low art of calendars and postcards, they were also to be mistrusted.

In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) Susan Sontag claims that beauty is a moral bleach:

Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera, and it tends to bleach our a moral response to what is shown. Uglifying, showing something at its worst, is a more modern function: didactic, it invites an active response (p. 81).

The moral bleach objection continues and often sees beauty captured between ‘scare quotes’ as something objectionable needing to be mentioned. Its style over substance and obscurantism of the harm it depicts requiring protective gloves.

To look at a beautiful thing is pleasurable. It is pleasurable to let our eyes linger upon something which may embody many of things that we ourselves are not: strong, brave, graceful, skillful, happy, warm, intelligent, attractive, or something mysteriously other. Or it may be the colour or form or size to which we react and exclaim – look at that, it’s beautiful! In 1968, upon seeing the earth rising above the moon’s horizon for the first time, astronaut William Anders exclaimed: “oh my God, look at that picture over there… wow, is that pretty.” Words miserably fail scenes such as this. Anders in his excitement grabbed the word ‘pretty’. But pretty doesn’t cover it. Never has the colour blue looked more perfect against black.

It seems right to say that the earth looks beautiful. It is consistent with the linking of beauty to moral goodness an idea which traces back to Plato (see the Symposium and the Phaedrus). However, Pfahl became aware that for environmental problems “there seems to be no easy, black-and-white solution” and he became “uncomfortable with reducing the tangle to a generic, ideologically correct version of reality.”

The mixing of a picturesque landscape with smoking nuclear power plant is deliberately ambiguous. The same way that environmental problems are inherently ambiguous.

Beyond a naive linking of beauty to goodness or beauty in opposition to critical thinking, Power Places makes us sit with ambiguity. The demand is to think about this human intervention in the landscape and what it means. It asks us again, what kind of Dr. Frankenstein we want to be.

A privileged cultural attitude sees beauty only as an appeal to emotion and/or a barrier to critical and moral thinking. And an under-estimation that viewers of photographs cannot hold two opposing reactions or are satisfied that beauty is all there is to be gained from looking. Pfahl avoids easy didacticism and instead opts for mystery. He offers a place think about our tangled futures if we wish to take him up on the offer.