Monocular Vision and Absurd Perspectives

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John Pfahl, Australian Pines, Fort DeSoto, Florida, 1977 (416.1984)

From 1974 to 1978, American photographer John Pfahl (b. 1939) worked on a series of unmanipulated color photographs on the theme of The  Altered Landscape. The series consists of landscape photographs with different added elements, depended on the given scene. In these pictures Pfahl manipulates the optics of the camera and is playing tricks with perspective by using cleverly placed man-made objects to mislead the viewer’s eye.

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John Pfahl, Shed with Blue Dotted Lines, Penland, North Carolina, 1975 (562.1983)

Especially the photographs in which the perspective of the depicted scene is corrected piqued my interest. They reminded me of the series Perspective Correction (1969) of the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, who exploits the illusion of perspective created by the camera. One of the interesting aspects of photography is the difference between the monocular view of the camera and binocular seeing in real life. Thanks to our binocular vision, we are able to see the three-dimensional world by using both of our eyes, which gives us a wider field of view and a precise perception of depth. The single-eyed lens of the camera sees with a monocular vision and thus creates in a photograph a two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world. Perceiving a monocular perspective photograph of a place as “being in that place” means, according to the Dutch scholars Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, that one is able to imagine looking with both eyes at a three-dimensional space. So, if we can image ourselves be present in the space of the photographed place, why then are we unable to see the rectangle in Pfahl’s photograph Library Protection or the squares in Blue Grid as a trapezoid lying on the floor or spread out over the stones?

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John Pfahl,  Library Projection, Tampa, Florida, 1977 (566.1983)

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John Pfahl, Blue Grid, Pembroke, New York, 1977 (425.1984)

In David Green’s article “Between Object and Image,” he writes the following on the work of Dibbets, which is also applicable to Pfahl’s Altered Landscapes: “In exploiting the difference between what we know and what we actually perceive, [the photographer] does more than draw attention to photography’s ability to deceive: he suggests that the ‘reality’ which it offers is itself problematic. Thus, the camera records a trapezoid that cannot be ‘seen’ and reveals a square that does not ‘exist’ and a conundrum is set in motion that involves a reality that is there and not there, a truth which is evident and concealed, and evidence that is visible yet in some sense invisible.” (Cited by Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, Photography Theory in Historical Perspective, 2012, p. 128)

Like the lines in Pink Rock Rectangle and in Shed with Blue Dotted Lines, when photographed from a pre-calculated vantage point, they appeared as non-perspectival rectangular shapes. By exploiting the consequences of the monocular and their central linear perspective in photography, Pfahl is not just playing with our ideas of perspective, but also with our understanding of what a photo is, because he draws attention to the fact that we are looking at a photograph by the absurdity of the perspective.

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John Pfahl, Pink Rock Rectangle, Lewiston, New York, 1975 (563.1983)

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About Renske van Leeuwen

Intern Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York and MA student Film & Photographic Studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands.
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One Response to Monocular Vision and Absurd Perspectives

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