In the late 18th century, English painters originated the concept of the picturesque by emulating the idealized Baroque landscapes of Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin. Through their art, painters were able to "tame" nature, making it comprehensible and aesthetically pleasing. This led to the popular custom of touring scenic places, initially in the British Isles and later in Italy as well. In some places, viewing stations with windows were erected at ideal spots, so that the scenery could be seen through a frame, not unlike a picture frame.
Photographer John Pfahl uses this tradition as a starting point for his exhibition "Permutations on the Picturesque." Pfahl made color photographs in England's lake district and in Wales, often basing the locations on late 18th century guidebooks that were created to assist those caught up in the Romantic "worship" of nature. He also photographed Lake Como in northern Italy, a favorite stop on the English aristocrat's grand tour.
To make these photographs more than exercises in art history, Pfahl took the idea of the picturesque one step further. Not only did he re-create an image from the past, he scanned these images into a computer and used Photoshop, a versatile graphics program, to make them painterly. To remind viewers that these are digital prints, he included narrow bands of enlarged pixels.
Sometimes he enhanced the images slightly by giving them a more dramatic sky, for example, or by placing sheep in the meadow to make the scene more pastoral. He had them printed using an Iris printer (an inkjet printing system) on watercolor paper, ostensibly to emulate English watercolors.
This is a bit of an absurd conceit; the pictures don't really look like watercolors. The digital manipulations create outlines around many shapes. These lines and the way in which color fills shapes are too uniform to be mistaken for pencil lines and watercolor brush strokes. Yet the pictures are engrossing as photographs because Pfahl combines two opposing historical tendencies in art photography: the imitation of painting to validate photography as art, and the imitation of non-art photography -- in this case the tourist snapshot -- to determine the subjects.
Pfahl's technique, when applied to gorgeous scenery or famous historical buildings, does create mild feelings of awe. "Castlerigg Stone Circle, Lake District, England," with its rich atmospheric sky and dark ancient stones in muted light, emerges as a Romantic masterpiece. "Tintern Abbey" looms up out of the fog and reminds us of Wordsworth's famous poem.
In formal terms, the "Permutations" series is stylistically consistent with earlier work. The low horizontal placement of the band of enlarged pixels in many works echoes the compositions of some of the "Altered Landscapes" photographs from the late '70s. The striking lights and darks in the sky above "Dolwyddelen Castle" call to mind prints from Pfahl's series dealing with industrial smoke.
The presence of the pixels also reminds us of the importance of focus to the photographic act. In "Sunset at Criccieth Castle, North Wales," the reflected sun is a pattern of squares until we blur our eyes and it blends with the rest of the scene. In general, though, these disruptions are so subtle, they don't interfere with the serene mood.
Even though the prints are beautifully done, one can't help but wonder what the unmodified color photographs would look like in comparison to the digital prints.
REVIEW Permutations on the Picturesque Digital Landscape photographs by John Pfahl. Through Oct. 8 at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery, Lenox Hotel, 140 North St.