Feb. 17, 1939 – April 15, 2020
"John Pfahl could make even a heap of garbage look beautiful."
That's how Buffalo News Art Critic Richard Huntington in 2000 summed up the humorous, inspired work of John Pfahl, whom Huntington described as "one of the most widely esteemed of Buffalo's nationally recognized photographers."
Making garbage look beautiful, Huntington wrote, was what Mr. Pfahl did in his 1992 series, "From the Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile." Huntington wrote, "Watermelon rinds, orange peels, bean pods, cabbage leaves and other assorted table scraps in various stages of decomposition are discovered by Pfahl's flawless eye to be the unlikely source of ravishing displays of color and quite rational compositions."
Mr. Pfahl died April 15 in Sisters Hospital. He had survived lymphoma in 1990 and "had multiple life-threatening conditions which were exacerbated to the point of death by Covid-19," his family said. He was 81.
"I want to make photographs whose very ambiguity provokes thought, rather than cuts it off prematurely," Mr. Pfahl once said. "I want to make pictures that work on a more mysterious level, that approach the truth by a more circuitous route."
For his 1994-1998 "Piles" series, Mr. Pfahl photographed a topsoil pile at a nursery, sand piles on the Buffalo Ship Canal and heaps of leaves and car tires.
"Ansel Adams had his beloved Sierras," Mr. Pfahl said at the time. "I seek out the more elusive mountains on the lake plain near my home in Buffalo, New York. I try to imbue these piles of raw and recycled materials, through judicious use of light, atmosphere and scale, with the majesty of mountains I recall from summers in the Rockies and the Alps."
"John Pfahl was undeniably Buffalo's most revered and accomplished photographer, who was widely admired and respected for his creative talent and generosity of spirit," said Gerald Mead, an artist, curator and lecturer in the Art and Design Department at SUNY Buffalo State who has collected Mr. Pfahl's work for 25 years. "His artistic legacy is justifiably preserved in numerous museum and private collections in Western New York, across the U.S. and abroad."
Born in New York City, the first of two sons of German immigrants Hans and Anna Gerhardt Pfahl, he grew up in Wanaque, N.J.
He was given his first camera, a baby Brownie, when he was 8, but according to his biography posted by the Janet Borden Gallery in Brooklyn, "soon appropriated his mother's 35 mm Voigtlander."
After winning a scholarship to Syracuse University, Mr. Pfahl studied advertising design, but some elective courses in photography altered his career path. He earned a bachelor's degree in art in 1961, then hitchhiked around Europe for a summer. He served two years in the Army with an engineering battalion in Fort Belvoir, Va., before being discharged in 1963.
He worked as assistant to photographers in New York City and Los Angeles, then married Bonnie Gordon, a Buffalo native, in the late 1960s in Albuquerque, N.M. In the early 1970s, they moved to Buffalo for Mrs. Pfahl's job as professor of design at Buffalo State.
Mr. Pfahl earned a master's degree from the Syracuse University School of Communications in 1968, the same year he began teaching at the School of Photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he became a full professor.
From 1983 to 1984, he was a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and in 1985 he retired from RIT to concentrate on his photography. He continued to contribute a scholarship each year to an RIT student.
In 1992, referring to Mr. Pfahl's "Waterfalls," Huntington wrote, "John Pfahl is so subtle it hurts. In almost painfully beautiful images, he first tells us that nature – the 'sublime' nature of the past century – is no more."
For "Permutations on the Picturesque," he photographed pastoral scenes in Wales, Great Britain and Italy, then scanned his images and manipulated them, sometimes making the sky more dramatic "or placing sheep in the meadow to make the scene more pastoral," wrote News reviewer Mark Lavatelli in 1999. "To remind viewers that these are digital prints, he included narrow bands of enlarged pixels."
For his series "Extreme Horticulture," wrote Huntington, Mr. Pfahl "subtly, and with great ingenuity, imposes his own subversive view by pointing up small but surprising visual occurrences."
In 1990, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery organized a major retrospective of his work, "A Distanced Land: The Photographs of John Pfahl," which was shown in Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta. His most recent exhibition, "Lake to Lake" with Amos W. Sangster, ran from April to January in the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University.
His work is held in many collections, including those of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
His work was exhibited across the country and he had solo exhibitions all over the world, including Paris, Milan, Belgium, Ottawa, Tokyo, Germany and Spain. Locally, he exhibited at the Albright-Knox, the Nina Freudenheim Gallery and the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
He also was involved with Artpark in Lewiston from 1974 to 1984.
In 2009, he was named educator of the year at the Dallas conference of the Society for Photographic Education. In 1975 and 1990, he received National Endowment for the Arts photographer's fellowships. He was given an honorary doctorate of fine arts in 1979 by Niagara University.
Mr. Pfahl enjoyed gardening, travel, was a "passionate fan" of opera and classical music and had "a deep interest in people," his family said. He also had "a very silly side to his humor," said his wife, Bonnie Gordon.
Survivors also include a brother, Walter, two nieces and two nephews.
His family said plans for services are on hold.