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Gary Pfaff

September 13, 1944- August 26, 2016

Rest in Peace

Gary and Erica, 1984

Gary and Erica, 1984


My dear friend and fellow photographer, Gary Pfaff, passed away on August 26, 2016.  His death was preceded by a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

I first met Gary on the street in West Philadelphia in about 1983—I was out shooting with a 4×5 when a man holding a small girl came up and said—“hey, I have a camera like that”, and started talking cameras  (I hate talking cameras.)  When he learned I lived a few blocks away, he invited me to his house for dinner—I was a little surprised by the invitation—but I accepted.  The little girl in his arms—two year old Erica—seemed to take a shine to me—and I was unofficially adopted into the family as “Uncle Dennis”.

Gary, Safe Harbor, Susquehanna River

Gary, Safe Harbor, Susquehanna River


When I first met Gary, I was a graduate student, living on a small stipend, but very interested in making photographs.  I couldn’t afford a lot of things—but Gary had very nice cameras.  He loaned me a Leica camera—an M3 that many consider to be the best 35mm camera ever made–for a cross country bike trip—something I could never have purchased on my own.  Through the years, he has given me cameras and film—my pictures are better because of the gifts he gave me.  I have tried to repay his generosity as I could, giving him photographs made with the equipment—but mostly I’ve tried to honor his gifts through passing on my own excess equipment to younger photographers, those with time, energy, and ambition, but limited money.   Gary taught me to share the toys–it’s more fun that way.


Gary and LD 1995                                                                  Gary and LaDorna, 1995


Gary also gave me my first bicycle helmet, a gift I must admit I ruined when a dog hit my bike when I was going down a hill fast—I broke my collar bone and the helmet, but my head was fine.  In 1984, we did a cross-Pennsylvania bicycle ride.  One short story—we stopped to camp at a fairground in Broad Top City—an old coal mining town—we set up our tents, and went into the local bar to have a beer in the evening.  There were a couple older gentlemen at the other end of the bar that looked like they had been working their stools since morning.  There were two beers on tap—Schlitz (forty cents a mug) and Strohs (forty-five cents a mug).   We decided to spend big, and went for the Strohs.  The beer came served in a 12 ounce frosted mug, filled completely to the brim, no head.  Gary laughed, and noted that this was a coal mining town—people worked for their money—and expected to get beer for their money—if the bar tender didn’t deliver, he probably would wind up at  the bottom of a coal mine shaft.  The next evening, we stayed at a hotel in Carlisle, and had dinner in the hotel restaurant.  We ordered beer–$3—which came in a tiny crystal glass—maybe five ounces of warm, flat beer.  After dinner, we went to a convenience store next to the hotel looking for ice cream (we had ridden 100 miles that day—we thought we deserved the calories)—bought a half gallon of ice cream, planning to just discard what we didn’t eat—but we managed to polish off the entire box without much trouble.

--Through the snow--Christmas Card

–Through the snow–Christmas Card


Gary had a sense of humor, though it was sometimes a little wacky–a bit on the punny side.  Here’s one joke I remember him telling—“Three strings walk into a bar, and try to order a beer.  The bartender looks at them, and says, ‘get out, we don’t like strings here’, so they leave.  One string ties itself in a knot, then starts beating itself against the wall.  It then goes back into the bar and orders a beer.  The bar tender looks at it, and says, ‘say, aren’t you one of those strings I just threw out of here?’  and the string replies, ‘no, I’m a frayed knot.’”    Gary’s sense of humor was also on display in the Christmas cards he and LD put out every year.  My favorite was a blender with a can of peas—“Visualize whirled peas”.

The last decade of Gary’s life was defined by his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.   I visited Gary when I could—about once a year—and watched his slow, steady decline.  In the beginning, there was talk of the possibility of new treatments, but, the progression of the disease was relentless.   Gary bore the ravages of the disease with as much grace and patience as I think possible—aided always by the love and care of LD.  Most difficult to watch were his struggles to express himself—Gary was still in there, a clear mind trapped by a body failing.

I think of Gary when I’m out photographing—I  often use a camera from him—mounted on a tripod from another friend who passed in 2010—and I’m grateful to still be able to do my work.  Our days are all numbered, one day our work will be done.  My work, and life, is better because of the gifts he gave.


Gary made wonderful pictures, which he put in boxes and hid in his basement.  Here are a few examples:


Gary Pfaff, Pawn Shop, Warrenton, VA 2001

Gary Pfaff, Pawn Shop, Warrenton, VA 2001


Gary Pfaff, Warrenton, VA, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Warrenton, VA, 2003


Gary Pfaff, Ocean City, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Ocean City, 2003


Gary Pfaff, Gainsville, VA, 2000

Gary Pfaff, Gainsville, VA, 2000


Gary Pfaff, Hatcher Pass, AK, 2003

Gary Pfaff, Hatcher Pass, AK, 2003











    • Mary
    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 3:05 am
    • Permalink

    Dennis: This is a VERY nice picture, in words, of your friend. I enjoyed reading about him and am sorry he’s gone. -M

    Sent from my iPad


    • Bob
    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 3:31 pm
    • Permalink

    We are grateful to you for introducing us to Gary and LaDorna, first in real time and reintroducing us to him through this appreciation for his friendship. The Christmas card, the Chicken joke and his photograph of the nude sculpture in an overgrown yard all have some sign of Gary’s droll sense of humor. Like his work, Gary was enigmatic. Hats off to Gary Pfaff.

    • Mia Busha
    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 4:18 pm
    • Permalink

    Not only was Gary a wonderful photographer, but also a wonderful human being. He had a sense of humor like no other. He adored LaDorna and their children. RIP my dear friend, you will be forever in my heart.

  1. Dear Dennis,

    Thanks for your tribute to Gary. I didn’t know how you’d gotten to know him and enjoyed seeing the photographs by you and by him. Harry and I attended the memorial gathering at the Swarthmore Meeting and the reception afterwards. Harry chose a fine photograph by him of pine needles in dark water out of a selection of works that the family was giving away. I spoke of his great generosity to his alma mater, U Arts, with the truckloads of film he donated to our non-silver program (a golden era for us with pinhole, view camera and copy camera use) and a Sinar 8×10 that he gave to the Photography Department. I hope you and your family are doing well.

    Warm regards,
    Sarah Van Keuren

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