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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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

This is neither a misspelled movie review nor a comment on Japanese comic anti-heroes—rather a reminiscence of a few days I spent in the western brooks range with a small mammal biologist named Dwight Bradshaw, but tagged as “Ratman” due to his work in more southerly climes.

De  Long Mountains, Brooks Range, Alaska, 1989

“Small mammals” is not a common term—one evening during our adventure, a small airplane landed next to our camping site, and a grey, bearded, suspendered man climbed out of the cockpit—a local game guide–and asked, in a less than polite voice what the hell we were doing on his landing strip. Ratman, being the senior member of our group replied “trapping small mammals”. There was a very long pause. “Mice, really” I added. The man harrumphed. “Sure must be easy to pack out,”   he said, before moving on to check his (illegal) stash of supplies cached by the landing strip.  He was right–mice are a lot smaller than moose.

Trapping mice isn’t exactly glamorous—it hardly seems like a job at all—unless you are an exterminator—but mice are the base of the food chain for many animals—a we were in the Brooks range looking for what might be there. Voles (3 species). Shrews (5 species, and all of them covered in their own shit and digesting in their own stomach acids after a few hours). And maybe some lemmings, though certainly not in the abundance suggested by the famous TV footage from the 1950’s, when a swarm of lemmings was pushed over a ledge by a bulldozer for a waiting TV cameraman, manufacturing the myth of a species so prolific that it stripped its food source before stampeding into the Arctic ocean.   We set snap traps (aka, mouse traps) and pitfalls (aka, coffee cans buried to the brims so mice would fall in them) in straight lines, baited them with organic peanut butter (which contained DDE, a breakdown product from DDT when we tested it for contaminants) and waited overnight for the mice to find them. In the mornings, we checked the traps, counted the dead, measured them, and stuffed and labeled the best specimens for the Smithsonian.   That took until about 2 in the afternoon.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

So that left the rest of the day for “exploring”. I’d been in Alaska for a season or two, and liked taking little hikes, usually with a camera, not too far from camp—you usually didn’t need to go that far to find something worth looking at, pointing the camera at. And after an hour or two, wandering back to camp for supper and rest.  That was my idea of a little hike.

But Ratman had different ideas of what “exploring” meant. After looking at the topo maps, he’d suggest a route—“that peak looks not too far” he’d say, and we’d head off in that direction.  Once at the peak, another would present itself—not far, not far—just a little higher—and we’d go further. After a while, the sun seemed lower on the horizon—check the time—hell, it’s 11:30 pm, time to head back to camp, in bed by 2AM, exhausted.   Then up at 7AM, to repeat the process. Check the traps, record the data, and then, a little exploring—this time, no so far—but it always turned into a 10 or 12 hour “hike”.

Other memories—one morning, washing the dishes in the creek, I looked up to see what I first took to be a caribou crossing the creek just below me—but no horns—it was a wolf, long legged, far bigger than any dog—it stopped to stare at me for a few seconds before disappearing in the willows. And the last day, a sow grizzly with two cubs wandered up the creek towards our camp—caught our scent—turned away—we snuck back to the tent were Ratman found the bear gun—which gave us courage—we started yelling at the bear to try to drive it away—instead it turned back on us, charged with teeth chattering—we backed up, looking at the ground—it turned and ran off with the cubs.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

Now, looking back, those hikes were some of the most amazing hours of my life. Walking along ridges high above the tree line, surrounded by naked mountains, loose rocks, and clouds. I made some photographs I treasure still.

Hemingway once wrote, “in Africa, a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon…”

Farm (1 of 1)

The first picture is from early this morning–by noon, a 50 degree wind had swept it all away.

Farm (2 of 1)I’m not sure what Hemingway meant about Africa–but I do know that landscapes change quickly–everything is ephemeral, subject to the magic of light.

Richardson Highway, 2005

Richardson Highway, 2005

 

Alaska As the Measure:  Live on KickStarter

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

 

Alaska As The Measure:  a book project–on KickStater now

God knows there are too many web sites out there with too many pictures: I’ve tried to use this blog as a way of discussing photographers and photographs I like, with a bit of added discussion about my own ongoing process of living and photographing. It’s part of my attempt to participate in the conversation of photography, something I can do to hopefully add to others understanding and enjoyment of the art.

 

Alaska as the Measure Ad

Of course, there are other ways to participate in the conversation. I love books of photography—looking at them, buying them—and making them. So far, I’ve managed to publish two books—“Far to the North: Photographs of the Brooks Range” and “Front Street Kotzebue”.   Both of these were relatively small projects, with photographs selected from one place, but easy to sequence into a book.   But I lived in Alaska for 26 years, and made many photographs, including about 5000 with an 8×10 view camera. The question is how to turn them into a book.

Panorama Mountain, 1994

Panorama Mountain, 1994

When I first came to Alaska in 1987, the Ansel Adams boom was still echoing across the landscape, and the smart money in the “art world” was that the black and white natural landscape had “been done”, and a young photographer had better find some other niche to fill. My photographic hero was Robert Adams, who photographed the human landscape, avoiding the National Parks and the monumental landscapes. But the landscape I found myself in, hundreds of miles past the end of the road in northwest Alaska, was wild beyond imagination, and I found myself point my lens at landscapes without any human artifacts, beautiful.

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

 

What does one do with photographs of beautiful natural landscapes? For years, I did not exhibit them or show them to many other people—I put them in boxes and let them age. Then, in 1996, at the suggestion of a gallery director, I sent a group of photographs to Robert Adams. He responded with an encouraging letter, and responded most strongly to the natural landscapes. Eventually he offered to sequence and edit a book of the work.

 

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

“Alaska As the Measure” is the result of his generous offer—a book of photographs that attempt to show the scale and beauty of the Alaskan landscape. I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign, in part to fund the design and printing of the book, but also to show people what I’ve seen. I realize that not everyone is a photographic book collector, but I think this book is worth making—and I’m hoping to find a group of people that help make this book become reality.

 

Tok Cut Off, 1994

Tok Cut Off, 1994

In Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” one of the scenes involves a day when it rains when the sun shines, a day when children are advised to play indoors because the foxes have their weddings, and do not like to be seen, but a boy disobeys, and watches anyway, and gets in trouble.

I thought of that scene today when a funny spring storm, with bright sunshine and rain mixed with snow fell just as we were leaving our farm and heading back to Spokane.  We have splendid views of the sky to the west and the south, but both the north and the east are hidden by mountains, so when weather comes from those directions, it feels like it’s on top of us before we can see it coming.

 

Snow and sun, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

Snow and sun, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

I did not see any foxes, and doubt if they were getting married—as a matter of fact, I’m not sure that foxes are common in our neck of the woods—we do see lots of deer and turkeys, and an occasional coyote. But the light of sun shining through rain mixed with snow is definitely strange, magical.

My wife and I have owned that piece of property for almost 25 years now—we bought it while we were living in Kotzebue—a place to buy a one way ticket to when they ran us out of town—a joke that would have been funny if it didn’t cut so close to the bone—but we’ve never managed to live there.   For years, we had a variety of renters in the old farmhouse—they helped pay the mortgage, but they all seemed to be troubled people—at least two died from drug overdoses, and one spent time in jail for child molestation. For the past few years—since our last renter left in the middle of the housing boom in 2007—we’ve let the place sit vacant—we call it “our cabin”—and now that we are living in Spokane, less than 100 miles away, we can visit on weekends—or during spring break. We spent the past few days planting trees (my wife’s task) and fixing the plumbing (my job)—but taking breaks to sit on the porch and enjoy the view. While digging a trench to access a valve, I kept thinking of the Towns Van Zandt song “To live is to fly”

“We all got holes to fill
And them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own

The choice is yours to make
And time is yours to take
Some dive into the sea
Some toil upon the stone

Well to live is to fly, all low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes.”

Driving into the farm earlier in the week, we were playing Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere over the rainbow”—the one where he gets the words all wrong but gets the song so right—and when we left today, there was a rainbow over the whole canyon. Who knows how our lives will go—but wonderful things happen when rain and sun mix—maybe foxes do marry—maybe magic things happen—maybe dreams do come true.

 

Rainbow over Dead Medicine Road, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

Rainbow over Dead Medicine Road, Evans, WA, April 12, 2014

I’ve been working on my next blog post for two months now–can’t seem to find the end of it–

Cottonwood in fog, January 20, 2014

Cottonwood in fog, January 20, 2014

But today, I spent a few hours south of town, in the wheat fields, looking for pictures.  I shot 4 negatives with the 8×10, using a sturdy Gitzo tripod I bought several years ago from Barry McWayne, who is no longer among the living, and a Phillips camera on extended loan from Gary Pfaff, who is suffering from Parkinson’s, no longer able to set up a view camera.

The blog post I can’t seem to finish is about the death of my father, at 83.  Today, driving thr0ugh the farmlands, I thought of him, and Gary, and Barry, and the gifts of light and time.  I’m grateful to still be working, looking for pictures, making more.

January 20, 2014

Wheat field in sun, January 20, 2014