A Problem of Nuclear Pfahl-Out
by James R. Hugunin
This essay was written prior to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. In the light of that disaster the issues discussed in this article take on more urgency.
I immediately wanted to take the essay apart “Seam-by-seam.” The book has been published in 1984, but I procrastinated in obtaining a copy until a few days ago when I bought the weighty, cumbersome book at the Los Angeles Country Art Museum for twenty-five dollars. I placed it on my desk where it displaced ninety square inches of scarce table-top until I accidentally knocked it off several days later. The tome tumbled open to page one hundred and seventy-nine, revealing a color reproduction of one of John Pfahl’s photographs from his Power Places series – an idyllic view of the “Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant” taken in May of 1982. On the facing page was the beginning of an essay, “John Pfahl: Power Places,” by Sally Eauclaire. I needed no further invitation to pick up Eauclaire’s book, New Color/New Work: Eighteen Photographic Essays and read what she had to say about Pfahl’s luscious color images, luminous inspired arcadian vistas in which nestle not a woodsman’s cabin or a little farm, but the utilitarian architecture of the sources of our nation’s electrical energy: hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.
“In John Pfahl’s Power Places,” begins Eauclaire, “the conflict between the machine and the garden that has raged since the beginning of the Republic looks happily resolved.” This initial reading of Pfahl’s imagery is the most obvious, the most open to the layperson, and is so admitted by Eauclaire herself when she mentions that the proponents of the utility industries have responded favorably to these photographs. Indeed, these pictures could easily grace any utility company’s calendar or annual report. She, however, goes on to complicate this reading by sketching out what she considers is the less obvious, more esthetically sophisticated, connotations inherent in Pfahl’s photographs:
But since the tensions – and stakes – of that conflict are higher than ever before, Pfahl’s idealization must in fact be ironic, for his photographs contain scenes suggesting the transcendental powers of nature deliberately juxtaposed with signs of a technology so powerful that it not only threatens the picturesque but the very world itself.
Consequently, says Eauclaire, the images may also be read as a eviled attack upon the very power plants whose proponents find Pfahl’s pictures a sympathetic vision of a nuclear future where a benevolent nature will live in harmony with nature’s most destructive potentiality, the atom. (The fact that Pfahl trains his camera on hydroelectric power plants, in addition to nuclear power, to a great extent obviates Eauclaire’s reading of Pfahl’s imagery as critical of his subject matter.” Eauclaire, in a reading that ignores the pleasant association usually attached to sunsets, dramatic cloud effects and reflecting waters, argues that anti-nuclear protestors can “point to frozen gray waters, apocalyptic unsets and other corroborations of doom.” But she glosses over the fact that these images are, if not reactionary, politically naïve. At best, they can only reinforce the pre-existing values of those who view them – proponents for the plants will read the photographs as celebratory, as confirming their visions, while those concerned citizens against such plants could, with a stretch of the imagination, find them indirectly accusatory. Either way, Pfahl has failed to take a firm position vis a vis the plants. He does not seek to educate people to the dangers inherent in nuclear power, to change the opinions of those who fail to see the impact of such plants on our ecology and the future of the human prospect. This “waffling” is, according to Eauclaire, a more complex handling of subject matter than seen in the work of committed political photographers whose normative stances she believes smack of a didacticism, hence appeal only weakly to an affective state. According to this brand of criticism excessive denotation overwhelms the complexities of connotation. But Pfahl, according to Eauclaire, follows the proper path toward an esthetic ambiguity:
While his prints reveal the pastoral ideal under technological encroachment, Pfahl encourages complex musings.
Just how complex these musing are is hinted by the essayist herself:
Pfahl himself is no crusader except perhaps in the art-for-art’s sake realm … Steering clear of direct confrontation with ecological questions. Pfahl places pictorial priorities foremost.
The artist’s moral and political indecisiveness on the issue of energy versus ecology, an indecisiveness pointed out by Eauclaire herself, has been twisted by this essayist’s semantics (e.g. “complex musings”) into a positive esthetic virtue reminiscent of the critical program of the New Critics.
Writing on poetry during the 1940s and 1950s, the New Critics - I.A. Richards, Johm Crowe Ranson and William Empson – opposed irony, tension, ambiguity and emotive language to the straightforward discourse of scientific explanation. Ideas, in the realm of poetics, were not to be presented patly and neatly: the task of poetics was not tot exemplify or produce ideas, but to become involved in the “recalcitrant stuff of life,” as one writer put it. Such “complex musings” were gauges for the esthetic complexity of the organic whole, the autonomous entity, that was the poem. Distance, detachment, impersonality and functionality were qualities admired by the New Critics, qualities Eauclaire finds in Pfahl’s oeuvre. In his book Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson mentions “ambiguity of the fourth type” which “occurs when two or more meanings of statement do not agree among themselves, but combine to make clear a more complicated state of mind in the author.” It is this “complicated state of mind” that Eauclaire attempts to elucidate in her essay. However, after reading her essay, that complicated state of mind can only refer to Pfahl’s political simplemindedness as it is refracted through the murky waters of Eauclaire’s arguments.
Eauclaire borrows haphazardly from the New Critics’ theoretical architecture in arguing the four main points in her essay:
1) that Phahl’s imagery is not unquestioningly celebrating our energy technologies, but incorporates a tension (tension, as understood by the New Critics was derived from lopping the prefixes off extension and intension, signifying that the meaning of poetry, its “tension,” was the full organized body of all the extension, or denotation, and intension, or connotation, that we can find in it) between the implied threat of the power plants and the postcard beauty of the natural settings in which they appear – as evidence she can only point to captions under the photographs which identify the source of potential danger, its geographic location and the “no nukes” viewer’s predisposed negative response to such plants;
2) that in producing this tension, Pfahl is appropriating the conventions of picturesque photography and jamming them up against those of social documentary – she says Pfahl has succeeded in reappraising the picturesque while at the same time utilizing the genre’s time-worn clichés;
3) that such ambiguity and post-modernist tampering with genres is esthetically better than a more didactic and direct political attack on the plants – as would be carried by Allan Sekula, Fred Lonidier, or Steve Cagan – calling such an unsubtle tactic “obvious sarcasm” and a person who would stoop to it “a lesser talent”; and, finally, arguing for the organic unity of Pfahl’s esthetic production over the years,
4) that this esthetization of something essentially political resolves and culminates: a) Pfahl’s long-time interest in his 19th-century predecessors – such as Carleton Watkins – and b) his self-reflexive attitude toward photograph exhibited in the perceptual games he’s played on viewers in his past work and in the carefully thought out formal arrangements he always establishes within the frame.
Eauclaire, then, sets out to claim esthetic import for Pfahl’s production, and its consistency with his past work. But she also lays claim to the critical thrust of Power Plants, a thrust that is precariously balanced through irony between over criticism and open celebration, a “complex musing” that, she claims, enriches the esthetic pleasure of these images. (Lately, it’s been fashionable for formalist-oriented critics to turn back Marxist theory on itself – that all cultural production is inherently political – and claim as politically critical art works that, at beast, only marginally question the status quo.) Such a dilemma of meaning may be wholly acceptable for certain kinds of subject matter, but when an artist filters an objective social condition of global import – as is nuclear power and its impact on our environment – through an esthete’s subjectivism, the result may easily slip into ethical confusion: a critical commentary encouraging such a murky position can only propagate the muddle. For instance, in plate 116 – which depicts the San Onofre Nuclear Sation near San Clemente, California – the breast-like dome structures which characterize the plant are so far up the coast, in the right side of the frame, as to be barely noticeable. The setting sun bathes the scene in a delicate, warm light we’ve seen in numerous postcards and travelogues. Nature has assimilated the plant into itself, the domes’ hues being identical to the expanse of beach cutting diagonally through the frame. Only the caption identifying the structure as a nuclear power lant hints at the possibility of dire consequences. In plate 115, Pfahl has aimed his camera at Hoover Damn, and in plae 112 Diablo Dam in Washington. Their identifying captions, however, fail to conjure up apocalyptic nightmares, and so Eauclaire shifts critical gears to accommodate them.
The dams rival nature with their sheer massive presence. Pfahl finds bold abstraction at Diablo Dam, Skagit River, Washington, where the concrete seems at loggerheads with the stone boulders and where foliage vies for supremacy over both … Diablo is awesome, invested with the venerability of a natural monument. The poignant little stump in the left hand corner harks back to America’s first homesteaders and their primitive attempts to tame nature.
The contradictory readings for John Pfahl’s Power Plants, and valorized in Sally Eauclaire’s essay, is echoed in the very structure of our society. Herbert Marcuse, a noted Marxist, has shown that the bourgeois cultural experience was at once the authentic expression of the desires, fantasies, and hopes that capitalism could not fulfill or accommodate and the hegemonic imposition of the very distortions by which cultural experience allowed anything to be expressed so long as nothing could be changed. Eauclaire herself hints at this ideological effect in the 19th-century attempts at reconciling the demands of capitalism and the delights of nature:
The energy/ecology dilemma is hardly new. 19th-century writers exalted technology as often as they pointed to the immanence of God in nature. America was a garden that epitomized utopia on earth and also a frightening wilderness to be tamed.
What Eauclaire enjoys in Pfahl’s photographs is the expression, the continuance of such contradictions, mistaking an ideological effect for an esthetic effect:
The beauties can be striking – in several cases nature has never seemed more lovely. Sometimes the stunning geometries and pearly surfaces of some of the power plants suggest the perfection of the Emerald City and the power of the pyramids. Yet the presence of signs of technology – whether those of oil, coal, steam, or nuclear fission – have prompted numerous viewers to read the photographs as elegiac summaries of our civilization … All that is missing is the motto, Et in Arcadia Ego – I [death] am also in Arcadia.
Yet it is the very absence of that motto as expressed in formal and contential terms that prevents Pfahl’s imagery from being actively political,, from being a threat to the utilities he photographs. If Pfahl’s pictures were to constitute the only challenge to such utilities, these companies would have little to worry about.
The fact that some critics would consider his images as resolving the art/politics dilemma is an indication of the inadequacy of idealist esthetics in coming to grips with material reality, with the pressing need for something other than mere imaginative resolutions of actual conflicts. We need to go beyond the private concerns as lauded by Eauclaire,
In the Power Places Pfahl has met an adequate antagonist, one to challenge his ruthless formal intelligence and stimulate his intellect. What’s more, after years of pursuing the picturesque in its many differing popular and art-historical meanings, he has finally found a subject commensurate with his capacity to wonder.
Turning that “capacity to wonder” into the capacity to alter the concrete conditions of our existence counters what Terence Hawkes (in Structuralism and Semiotics) has pointed out as the main ideological issues re-enforced by Eauclaire’s critical stance:
Thus, New Criticism’s admiration of complexity, balance, poise and tension could be said to sustain the characteristic bourgeois concern for a ‘fixed’ and established, unchanging reality, because it disparages forceful, consistent and direct action.
Rising above Pfahl’s estheticism, achieving a witty, nevertheless barbed, social criticism is Lisa Lewenz. Who? you say. L-e-w-e-n-z. An artist adept in a variety of media, she has been playing academic gypsy from out of the Chicago area for a number of years. Currently, she is a visiting artist at the University if Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Her A View from Three Mile Island (1984) takes the quotidian form of a calendar for that year, a smart choice of format as her idea is to communicate to a broad range of people, not merely court accolades from the Photographic Establishment. Unfortunately, Pfahl’s portfolio remains quite invisible to the average Jane and Joe who rarely wander through the portals of gallery or museum. Where Pfahl’s full color renditions are visually seductive and glamorize the power plans, Lewenz’s monochromatics narrow the esthetic spectrum the viewer is to respond to, making her social critique more precise.
Lewenz’s calendar takes up about one hundred eighty-seven square inches of wall space. That’s more area than Eauclaire’s publication displaces, but it begs to hide conveniently that smudge or that nail hole in our wall and so doesn’t sit cluttering your desktop for very long. Besides, you can scribble your appointments in it. Flipping through the comb bound calendar month by month, studying the photograph on each page as with conventional calendars, you catch glimpses of Three Mile Island – those conspicuous towers – framed through the windows from inside homes of Harisburg area residents. Lewenz photographed in the area for two years before compiling her calendar. What startles is how close those near little interiors are to the atomic piles. No, it isn’t because she tricked up with a telephoto lens, for if anything, those master bedrooms, child playrooms, living rooms, and dining areas demanded a wider than normal lens for their portraits. Tense interiors are quaint, akin to Chauncey Hare’s Interior America minus occupants; they recall John Pfahl’s Picture Windows, but Lewenz pulls her camera back to include objects of daily use so that personal objects will be rendered in a photographic detail that must spark our innate voyeurism. This tactic not only contextualizes the nuclear plant peeking in from every window in the calendar, it also sets up an ethical tension between the uplifting values we associate with home and hearth and those more questionable values of a corporate management which oversees the horrible destructive potential looming just outside. In contradistinction, Pfahl goes about making – according to Eauclaire – an esthetic tension between the picturesque and the apocalyptic – a false tension since the final holocaust will be picturesque. I’ve talked to atomic physicists who’ve personally observed atmospheric nuclear explosions and all were ecstatic over the visual esthetics attendant upon achieving nuclear fission.
The calendar’s cover displays its title. A View from Three Mile Island, and date, 1984, in a modest serifed typeface: above is a single photograph flanked, for emphasis, by wide black rulings. In this image Lewenz moves closer to Pfahl’s brand of meta-photography. The setting is no longer homeside, but institutional. She has cropped up to the edge of the large glass doors, its metal frame forming a large crosshairs over the scene. Beyond the doors, on a large walkway, stands a woman in the act of taking a snapshot of her family. These typical Americans stand proudly before the nuclear plant which is to provide the backdrop for the snap. This woman, recording a great moment in her family’s sojourn, acts as a symbol (she faces away from us) of the typical. Robert Adams’ photographic study of the middleclass residents imperiled by the atomic weapons plant situated near them was an attempt to juxtapose the everyday suburban reality to the implied horrors resulting from an accident at the weapon plant. The image also operates as a self-reflexive gesture, referring to the artist herself who is performing the same photographic activity behind the woman’s back – with a more sophisticated camera and different intent, of course.
Carefully positioned, an open square outlined in black on the glass door repeats, intensifies the camera’s framing of the plant behind. This punctum (as Barthes might label it) further targets the “real subject” of these images, the power plant, which was inaccessible to Lewenz and so had to be shot through the openings of places she could get permission to enter. This multiple framing suggests the constructed nature of the photographic image and, by implication, the constructed nature of our belief systems. That the people on the cover, except the scowling grandmother, pose so cheerfully before the deadly machine behind them says something about the way such an atomic device has been socio-politically “framed” by the utility companies for general “consumption.”
This introductory image sets the stage for all that is to follow inside the calendar. It makes its appeal both to those average Janes and Joes perusing their local Crown Books or B. Dalton Book Sellers, and those sophisticates more in their element while either navigating the clutter of Chatterton’s Books or other similar book-dives, or making a purchase in a well-scrubbed museum bookstore.
Besides appropriating the overall design format of the traditional calendar, Lewenz has taken the convention of inscribing inside the date quads the birthdays of illustrious folk, momentous events like ground hog day, and popular holidays and turned up its social stridency several decibels. Flip the calendar open to January third and read:
Idaho Falls test reactor kills three workers, 1961
or for the fourth of January read:
Reagan bill gives a-plants temporary license before safety hearings, 1983
The seventeenth of February commemorates a frightening statistic:
Report: high levels of strontium-90 in US milk & children [sic] bones, 1959
On the back of the calendar, Lewenz appends a lengthy discussion of this project, its origins in a near-miss between a ferry she was a passenger on and a nuclear submarine lurking just beneath. Here she comments on her purpose in incorporating these pithy blurbs:
Some of these events became headline news while others pass unmentioned by the media. As with most events in our lives, only a few are clearly remembered. This calendar is an attempt to chronicle a variety of nuclear-related events and to focus thought on the options for our future.
The result of Lewenz’s research is that throughout the year the calendar’s owner is led through an abridged history of the nuclear age with its terrible dangers and bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. It’s a gift that “keeps on giving,” day by day, as you check each day’s date and find yourself being slyly educated in easily assimilated chunks of news. In so doing, she has successfully navigated between the Charybdis of pedanticism and the Scylla of over-simplification. For the Yuppy set, perhaps we could persuade Lewenz to do a clever take-off of Trivial Pursuit? Trivia would be supplanted by politically relevant information!
James Hugunin is publisher and editor of U-Turn, and is currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.