The river runs serenely through Pfahl's photographs

Critic's corner// Art

Art Column


John Pfahl's haunting color images in Luminous River: Photographs of the Susquehanna, on view in the Albin O. Kuhn Library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tap into the primal forms of mental life described by psychologist Carl Jung, who theorized the existence of an unconscious mind that contains the collective experience of all humanity.

In these placid scenes of water and sky, one seems to see a universal reflection, as it were, of one's own deepest stirrings, an image of the inner self pro- jected outward onto nature. Pfahl's images compel an emotional response from the viewer that, strangely enough, seems largely independent of the nominal subjects of his photographs.

There's nothing especially mystical, however, about the way Pfahl went about creating the 40 or so images in the show, all of which were made with a medium-format camera and panoramic film. He simply set out to document the 448-mile progress of the Susquehanna River from its origin at Otsego Lake, in upstate New York, to where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay near Havre de Grace. The majority of the photographs were taken in out-of-the-way towns and rural communities of which most people probably have never heard.

"I became captivated with the Susquehanna years ago while driving from my home in Buffalo [N.Y.] to Washington, D.C.," Pfahl wrote in an artist statement. "The highway follows the river for about 50 miles between Shamokin Dam and Harrisburg - 50 miles of constantly changing river views. Cutting through five mountain ridges, spotted with wooded islands large and small, and featuring wide glassy surfaces interspersed with riffles and rapids, the ... river seemed to soften the air through which it flowed, conjuring up tones of 19th-century American landscape painting."

Indeed, during the 19th century, the artists of the Hudson River School had painted vivid river views in an effort to capture what they called the "sublime" - the awe-inspiring, terrifying aspects of nature beside which mere human concerns shrink into insignificance. To these early American artists, the sublime symbolized the overpowering emotions of awe and wonder provoked by nature's grandeur that signified God's presence in the world.

There is an almost religious solemnity in Pfahl's works as well, as if each image were a profound meditation on the meaning of being in the world. Pfahl's photograph of Otsego Lake, for example, shows its shadowed depths just as sunrise streaks the surface with the first quivering, orange rays. The picture could serve as the visual equivalent of the biblical account of Creation, when "darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

Likewise, in Sunset Near Shickshinny Mountain the river cuts a serene channel through an ideal landscape of forest and distant mountain that conjures up the innocence of the Garden of Eden. The reflection of the sky on the water is like a luminous patch of divine consciousness shining benevolently on the world. Only the low-hanging branches of some trees on shore, which nearly touch the water and seem to divide the picture in two, call to mind the Fall that will end this perfect existence.

Jung believed that all the world's great religions were inspired by the archetypal images already present in humans at birth and that the task of the artist was to bring these images to consciousness in a way that communicated their meaning to the people of their historical time and place.

Pfahl's images are 21st-century visions of what the 19th-century called the sublime, but they are no less valid as artworks because, at its deepest level, human experience doesn't change, and the images which move us are everywhere and always shaped from within rather than given from without. Therein lies the great beauty of these magical photographs, and also the reason why one will never tire of looking at them.

John Pfahl's Luminous River and a companion exhibition, Extreme Horticulture, both run through May 26 in the Kuhn Library at UMBC, 1000 Hilltop Circle in Catonsville. Call 410-455-2270.

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