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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Robert Frost famously said, “Good fences make good neighbors”—something that makes a lot of sense in the country surrounding our farm.   A fence is a way of dividing ownership of the landscape into what’s yours and what’s mine, clearly defined, visible:  an obstacle that must be walked around, or passed through with a gate.  Fences work both ways: some things are being kept in, so they don’t wander off—things that are ours (sheep, cows, dogs, children), and some things are being kept out—other people’s animals, wild animals, other people’s kids, or strangers.

When we bought our farm 25 years ago, the fence around the property was in very poor repair, and other people’s cattle had the run of our meadow—as allowed by “open range laws”.  We gained control of the meadow only when a local rancher spent a summer building fence around the property to keep his cattle out—if they could get into the meadow, they would never leave—and he had leased 14,000 acres of forest lands surrounding our property—where he wanted them to spend the summer grazing.  Now, when he opens the gate to our property in October, the meadow is soon filled with his herd—I once counted 160 cattle in our meadow in late fall.  It makes it easy for him to round them up and move them to their winter range.

 

Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

The old farmhouse we are using as a cabin is in the middle of the meadow, and was surrounded by a fence to keep the cattle out of the yard.  Behind the house, a deer fence surrounded the garden area.  Another fence kept the cattle out of the pond.  Every time we went to the garden, we opened a gate.  Going from the house to the well  near the pond required going through three gates.

The old fences, Spring 2016

The old fences, Spring 2016

 

Last winter, my wife Rachel suggested that we surround the house, garden, and pond inside a single fence, high enough to keep the deer out.   We love watching the deer, and are glad there are so many, but they do tend to eat almost anything we plant.  The new fence would enclose all the sheds, the new grove of trees we planted to the south of the house (the next generation of shade), the newly planted apple trees, and the place where we are trying to start a thicket for the birds.

Early this spring, we figured out where we wanted this new fence to go, marked corners, and measured distances.  I started building the new fence in early June, starting with pulling out some of the old fence to make way for the new.  I have memories of helping my father build fence, back in Lancaster County, when I was a boy.  It’s hard work—digging holes, stretching wire, pounding posts, pounding nails—dirty, physical labor—not the kind of thing I’ve spent my career doing.   I wind up drenched in sweat and filthy at the end of the day.  And the job is big—each day I work I make some progress, but the job requires many days of work—weeks, months.  The satisfaction, though, is in being able to see my progress, and knowing that I’ve done the job right, and that, with luck, the fence should last the rest of my lifetime.   We are making the fence as transparent as possible, so we can see the space beyond.

I’m about half way done with the job now.  Moving the fences changes the space in many ways—trees that had been outside the fence—in the space belonging to the deer and the cattle—are now inside—in our space.  Even though we legally own the whole property, building our fence is a way of defining our space—where we can plant things—and making the property our home.  We dream of gardens and orchards, with flowers and seeds and thickets for birds, and porches to watch them from.

 

Fence (1 of 1)

untitled (50 of 108)This year has been weird, weather wise–it was in the 80’s in early April, we planted our garden around May 10 (even though the locals say there can be frost until June 1)–thought we had made it home free–no frost–and a temperature of 102 on June 5.  But yesterday there was a light frost–only killed one zucchini leaf–but very clearly frost.  Then today, the picture above, a thunderstorm with something not quite hail, not quite snow–more like slush balls falling from the sky, covering the ground.

Some moments are so perfect they need no comment. untitled (99 of 163)untitled (83 of 163)

Sunset in the digital Age, March 20. 2016

Sunset in the digital age, Bellingham, WA,  March 30. 2016

All the adults are on their smart phones, talking, texting, taking pictures–the kids are still throwing rocks.

 

 

Digital sunset, Vancouver, BC, April 1, 2016

Digital sunset, Vancouver, BC, April 1, 2016

 

In Vancouver, the rocks seem to be talking back.

 

 

A few years ago, I purchased a small (about 4×5 inch) Ansel Adams print, shown below.

https://denniswitmer.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/aa-blog-image.jpg?w=490&h=736

This image was probably printed sometime in the mid 1930’s, and was most likely sold in the Yosemite Park gift shop, where Ansel’s wife’s family had a long term concession.  The image is of Yosemite falls, probably made in the spring (judging by the strong flow of the falls).  While I do not know the exact details of the photograph, it appears to have been made with a large format camera, and shows care in both the composition and the printing.

Yesterday, I and my wife spent a few hours in Yosemite Valley, on a lovely day in spring.  I carried a hand held digital camera, and shot several hundred images over the course of a few hours.  One of the images is shown below:

 

Yosemite Falls, March 22. 2016

Yosemite Falls, March 22. 2016

 

Of course, my image is taken from a different vantage point, with a different camera, in a different century, and with a different purpose.  I expect absolutely no sales of this image from the gift shop (my wife comes from a family of plumbers, not gift shop owners.  Maybe if the toilets back up, I’ll get a call).  My image was, of course, made in color, but in honor of Ansel Adams, I converted the image to black and white and very carefully selected the “green filter” option to bring out the texture of the trees.

As a young man, I read an essay by John Szarkowski about Ansel Adams who noted that “many people prefer the experience of viewing an Ansel Adams photograph to the experience of being in the actual landscape”–a statement that shocked me when I read it–at the time I believed that a photograph was always only a small part of the reality of the place, and therefore always inferior.  But being in Yosemite valley is to be in a crowd–there were probably 10,000 people in the valley when I was, all of them with their cameras and cell phones, posing themselves, family, and friends in front of the falls and cliffs that Ansel Adams so famously photographed before.  Every view was occupied.  After about two hours (much of it spent looking for a toilet without a long line), my wife remarked that she didn’t like the place.  The cliffs and falls are unarguably beautiful, but the crowds and the speeding cars racing by meant that none of it could be enjoyed in silence or solitude.

Lower Falls view, Yosemite Falls, March 22, 2016

Lower Falls view, Yosemite Falls, March 22, 2016

The most satisfying views I found were quieter ones, along walkways, into groves of trees.  And, yes, I know, these too have been photographed to death, but at least they felt a little more private than the grander views.  And, besides, my wife was looking for a tree.

Forest near Yosemite Falls viewing area, March 22, 2016

Forest near Yosemite Falls viewing area, March 22, 2016

 

 

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Been back on the east coast for nearly a month now, back to the landscape of my childhood. The time here has been filled with emotion—dealing with the ravaging’s of aging and cancer, while at the same time, enjoying the comfort of family and old friends.

 

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

 

Yesterday, I had a few hours of uncommitted time. The day was gray and misty—typical winter weather here. I decided to head to Pequea, on the Susquehanna River, not far from the farm I grew up on, a place I saw every school day from the bus for 12 years. My recollection is that the river was, even then, a place of stillness and mystery. After moving away from the county, I returned to the river to photograph many times.

 

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

 

Yesterday on the river, the light was ethereal—not a word often used—but the only word that I can think of to describe both the landscape and my state of mind.

 

Susquehanna River at Holtwood, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Holtwood, 1/9/2016

Since moving to Spokane, I’ve felt just a hair smug about my situation—at 2,000 feet above sea level, there isn’t much danger of flooding from sea level rise—and we’re pretty far removed from both hurricanes and tornados. Wildfires happen, but usually at some safe distance from the urban area where we purchased a home.

Spokane Storm, November 18, 2015

Spokane Storm, November 18, 2015

So the storm of last Tuesday was a bit of a shock—winds of up to 70 miles per hour and heavy rain persisted for several hours. Which on the face of it doesn’t sound too bad—we had storms like that every year in Kotzebue—but Spokane never gets weather like that.

Spokane Storm, Smashed House, November 20, 2015

Smashed House, South Hill, Spokane, November 20, 2015

 

What happened was that the majestic Ponderosa Pine trees that grace our neighborhood fell in large numbers—some of them uprooted, some snapped in half—but all of them falling in thunderous crashes.   My son and I were watching a movie during the storm until the power went out—about 4:30 in the afternoon—I then moved to the kitchen and was on a call to my wife (who is on the east coast) when a tree in our neighbor’s back yard split and fell.

Fallen Trees, South Hill, Spokane, November 18, 2015

Fallen Trees, South Hill, Spokane, November 18, 2015

 

The next morning, the extent of the damage became a bit more clear—the radio station I usually listen to for local news was off the air. I drove to a local department store to purchase a propane lantern and propane for a camp cook stove—the store was open, but operating on emergency power—and the shelves of batteries, lanterns, were quickly being emptied. At the cash register, people were purchasing a variety of items—hot coffee, ice, and a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka were on the non-moving belt in front of me.

My son, attending a local community college, found his normal path to school blocked—I drove with him to find an alternate route. Along the way, dozens of trees were downed, many with power lines tangled in them.

I’ve done several short walks in our neighborhood since the storm—something I’ve done frequently since moving here—but now the walks are a bit more interesting.   A number of homes along routes I often walk have been damaged by fallen trees. Crews of men have been clearing the streets, replacing power poles, and repairing wires.

View from my backyard, November 23, 2015

View from my backyard, November 23, 2015

 

More than a week after the storm, we still do not have power at our house. I reported the outage at our home to the utility early in the morning after the storm. The utility, to date, has not acknowledged my call, nor have they sent a crew to even observe the damage. I’m trying to be patient, but the utility PR department keeps saying that “all power will be restored in 2 days”—they’ve been saying that for a week now.  I no longer believe them.

We have a gas hot water heater, which is working, and so have hot water for showers and washing dishes. However, the furnace is not operating, as the circulating fans need power. Our house is holding steady at about 48 degrees inside—not exactly comfortable, but not close to freezing pipes (yet).

I’m trying to maintain my sense of humor—but my reserves in that department are wearing thin. I try to think of people who have lived through real disasters—Katrina, Sandy—storms where whole communities were destroyed—and know that we are doing fine.

But still—I just want my damn power back.

Some previous works from my collection:

For Halloween

Collage #1

Collage #2

Collage #2

DSC09917

Abstract #1

DSC07550

Abstract #2

Abstract #3

Abstract #3

The joke being, of course, that most of these works of art were found in the wild–on the street–not in a gallery.  I collected them with a camera–mostly.  There is one in the group above that is a “real” painting, signed and dated by the artist.

The paintings in the previous post from October 16 were all “collected” from downtown Portland.  The paintings above are from Korea (2004), New York (2009), Fairbanks (2000), and Spokane (2014).

While I am a photographer, my first art purchase was of a painting.  Of course, there is a story.  My wife Rachel and I were traveling in Europe, intending to do a bicycle tour of Denmark and Norway–a five week vacation.  We landed in Homburg, Germany (I think the plane tickets were cheaper there), and took a train to Aarhus, Denmark, our bikes in the baggage car.  My bike made it, but Rachel’s did not.  We waited in Aarhus for the better part of a week, waiting for the bike to show up.  To make matters worse, the bike was my wedding gift to Rachel–so there was sentimental value in addition to the monetary value.  While we waited, we walked through Aarhus, looking at stores.  We found a “good used painting shop”–something we had never seen in the US–something sort of like a cross between a gallery, an antique shop, and a thrift store.  Most of the paintings were drab and dreary landscapes of Denmark–the owner seemed to have a fondness for them.  But one painting caught our eye–a painting of Greenland–and the light in that landscape resonated with our recollection of the light over the water in Kotzebue, Alaska.  The painting was priced well beyond what we thought we could afford–but we went back to look at it several times.

Greenland, 1953, G. Thorbjorn

Greenland, 1953?, E. Thorbjorn

When the bike failed to be delivered after a week, the railroad offered to pay us for the lost bike.  We protested the pittance they offered at first, but when the offer rose to something close to the price we paid, we accepted–an amount which was sufficient to purchase the painting.  We took our cash from the railroad station to the used painting store and watched as the proprietor removed the canvas from the stretcher and rolled it in a tube.  We now had our first painting–and a new wedding gift.  The twist to the story–within hours of completing the purchase, we got a call from the railroad station–the bike had arrived–so we went and bought the bike back–but kept the painting.

The proprietor gave us a small slip of paper with information about the painter–in Danish, of course.  A few years later, we had a friend translate the slip of paper–my recollection was that the painter was a man who made a living painting houses.  Of course, now we have the internet–I just did a search of G. Thorbjorn–and discovered that I either have a bad memory, or had a bad translator–the painter is Evelyn Thorbjorn–1911-1985–and a woman.  I managed to find some auction records–the prices paid clearly indicate a lack of interest in her work among the hedge fund set–all the records I found were less than the price we paid for the painting more than 20 years ago.  In other words, not a great investment, at least not from a financial perspective.  But we’ve owned the painting for 22 years–and I’ve looked at it almost every day–it’s been hanging in our living space all that time.  It still brings back the memories of the light and space of the arctic.

Which perhaps leads to what I think the function of art is, at least in my life.  It permits my head to go to places I want to be.   I like having it because I can look at it often.  It makes the bare walls of my house into a space that is mine.

Wild Painting--Graffiti under highway bridge, 2014

Wild Painting–Graffiti under highway bridge, 2014

And I love the act of collecting “wild paintings” off the street using a camera.  I am certain that some of the paintings I have found this way were created intentionally, by artists working with surfaces other than canvas in a studio, put on public display until some “beautification project” destroys them.  My one regret is that I have no knowledge of who created the work, or why, or where to go find more of their creations.    Other “wild paintings” have been created more by accident and aging than intention, like the layering of posters on a wall, or paint splashes on the side of garbage dumpsters.   Either way, I feel like my role, as a photographer, is closer to that of a collector than a creator.  I see something I admire–something I would stop to look at if it were hanging in a gallery–so I frame it in the viewfinder, and take it home.  It is now mine, but only in the way of owning a painting.  It is part of my collection.

Yesterday, I traveled to a big city (by my standards, anyway–good bookstore, good galleries, good food)–spent time looking at books, looking at art, and eating…

This morning, I acquired several paintings.

Untitled Painting #1, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #1, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #2, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #2, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #3, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #3, 10/17/15

So, as a collector, did I make any mistakes?  Someone once said that the way to not make any mistakes as a collector is to look at a million paintings and you will never make a mistake.  I may be a few  paintings short of that mark, so maybe I missed.  But I think these three are worth at least every dollar I paid.  Maybe more.