"Tremendous, Stupendous, Romantic, Gigantic":
An Introduction to "American Waterfalls"
A Portfolio of Photographs by John Pfahl
They are pure verb -- "shaking and quaking, pouring and roaring, flowing and going," as poet Robert Southey rhymed it. Waterfalls, after all, exist only in motion. The dry rock of drought years is only a craggy cliff face -- nothing much to write home about. Waterfalls in season, though, are nature's most reliable show. They are the river's current compressed to a moment, held up for view as if on a stage.
The quieter waters of our lives pale by comparison. We take journeys with waterfalls as destination. We carry around their images and names in the travelogue of the brain: Niagara, Kaaterskill, Yosemite, Yellowstone, sites of some of the greatest American landscape painting and photography, our natural icons. Niagara Falls, a tourist magnet for hundreds of years already, was even consecrated by the Catholic Church in 1861 as a "pilgrim shrine." The great waterfalls of the nation remain, if not shrines, secular sanctuaries of the wild, emblems of the sublime view of nature which so shaped the early American imagination -- oversized wilderness, landscape as revelation.
Tradition aside, we do seem to have a particular attraction to vertical water versus horizontal. Maybe we think of Heraclitus's dictum that we can't step into the same river twice and realize that, standing before a waterfall, we can't see the same river twice. It arrives and vanishes in an instant, is endlessly in flux. We may try in vain to follow a single drop of water from precipice to base, to measure its velocity, its drop and outward journey, but it disappears into the on-rushing whole. The waterfall broadcasts a perpetual carpe diem â€” over the edge into oblivion in the twinkling of an eye. Or, more accurately, over the edge into the dullness beyond -- the suddenly still, sulky river which forgets it was ever anything as spectacular as a waterfall.
But if waterfalls are defined by their movement, their music and palpable presence in the air, the tension between their ongoing vanishing and very ongoingness, what hope is there of reproducing their impact in the still form of the photograph? Can the waterfall's performance survive still life? Not only do artists face this inherent obstacle in approaching the waterfall as subject, but there is also the whole history of landscape art to interfere with our reactions and creative impulses. Our path to the waterfall is lined with markers pointing us toward the "appropriate" response. We carry the backpack of the sublime and the picturesque with us, reams of maudlin poems, the whole American mythology of Niagara and the wild West. Can we ever hope to see waterfalls for what they are -- an accident of nature, gravity, a moment of liquid energy? We almost cannot help but hear them "roar"; we watch their waters "rush" over the precipice as if it were an act of will. One must look far and wide for descriptive language free of personification.
Whether as honeymoon mecca, spiritual emblem (the Almighty's handiwork), or symbolic slice of American wilderness, the waterfall has attracted its share of excess and kitsch. See it on any cheap calendar or dime store postcard rack. In t.v. ads for soap, it is emblem of "cleanliness is next to godliness." As symbol of transcendence, it is the setting for any number of advertisements hawking uplift.
Traditionally, images of the feminine have dominated waterfall mythology and iconography -- from naiads to Indian maidens. The more men have tried to conquer nature, the more they have projected a stereotypic female role onto it: something beautiful that can be possessed, used, but with a will of its own, so dangerous, needing to be controlled. The vocabulary of waterfall description has long been explicitly feminine and erotic, routinely including veils -- bridal or Salome-like -- robes, bosoms, curvaceousness, the kiss of mist, and the low moan. Even women have partaken of the clichÃ©. Nineteenth century poet Fanny Kemble addresses Trenton Falls as a "daughter" whose robe of light waves in the wind while "the jewels of thy girdle glow and melt."
There is, of course, an official, objective vocabulary for describing waterfalls, the language of chutes and flumes, of classical, complex, curtain and ribbon waterfalls ("The following must be true: the height divided by two is equal to or greater than the crest width"). But even these dry parameters are invaded by "mouths" and "plunge pools."
Perhaps the bodily association is inevitable. Rivers have long been described as coursing the earth much as blood does the body. If rivers are blood, then waterfalls are moments of crisis: orgasm, or heart attack.
Along with sex, of course, they suggest death. Accidents, suicides, and deadly stunts populate waterfall history, danger apparently being as alluring as the erotic. Sex and death conjoined (the only two real subjects, according to Yeats) produce the ultimate in waterfall appeal, as in the classic film Niagara in which femme fatale betrayal by a restless Marilyn Monroe leads not only to her own murder, but her husband's inexorable plunge over the falls.
How can the natural image be rescued from such a chock-a-block history? We are not so naive as to think we can walk out into the world without centuries of aesthetic baggage. Nor can we be lulled into thinking, as early celebrators of photography did, that the photographic image is "natural," that, as one magazine declared of the daguerreotype in 1839, "by virtue of the sun's patent, all nature, animate and inanimate, shall be henceforth its own painter, engraver, printer and publisher." The photographer, we know, is a highly conscious selector and shaper of vision.
Every time John Pfahl sets out to photograph a waterfall, he walks head-on into the risky intersection of nature, landscape, and art. It takes courage. In the face of powerful natural phenomena like waterfalls, many artists may simply feel unentitled to apply their art. Perhaps the worst pre-condition for artistic response is touristic build-up-- to be at a site others have raved about and already brilliantly recorded. "Oh that I had never heard of Niagara till I beheld it!" wailed no less an artist than Hawthorne in 1835.
My own recent return to Niagara, after a twenty-year lapse, was a typically postmodern touristic disaster. The falls I had been bedazzled by as a young woman looked, this hectic August Sunday afternoon, like little more than a gully between parking lots. From the esplanade on the Canadian side, crammed with gift shops and hundreds of ardent sightseers, a live band blasting "I've Been to the Desert on a Horse with No Name," Niagara Falls looked uncannily like a stage set, a poster, dwarfed by all the apparatus that feeds off it. Daily, boats struggle towards it, helicopters poise over it, revolving sky towers command it. Everywhere you turn there is the human viewing project: promenades, platforms, high-rise hotels. One can almost imagine the falls as a mechanical toy conveniently erected opposite an excellent vantage point, not a piece of nature at all, but a work of nature, a work of art.
When I got home, I had this peculiar sensation: the falls had been fabulously disappointing compared to John Pfahl's photographs of them. There I was, out in the natural world as I like to be, in the presence of something I knew in my bones I thought beautiful and exciting, but beset by the touristic packaging of the experience, I was more moved back home looking again at his photos. Pfahl, in his angles of vision, his unexpected framings, his luminist sensuality, and the poignant colors of water and light he was patient and skillful enough to capture, had produced, I found myself thinking, what might be the ultimate contemporary experience of Niagara Falls. The paradox I'd felt earlier was turned on its head. Not only could a waterfall's beauty and energy be captured, but perhaps sometimes even exceeded -- in art.
These days, unless we have the luck of finding ourselves at an out-of-the-way waterfall at an off-hour, alone, our experience of a photograph might well be more meditative and moving an experience than an assembly-line visit to a place like Niagara in season. The solitude of possessing the waterfall in one's reading chair replaces the solitude we are hard-put to find in the world today.
We are lucky, as the waters of the world are dirtied and diverted, that John Pfahl is here to document them and remind us of what we have and what we are losing. Susan Sontag has asserted that all photographs are elegiac, memento mori, testifying "to time's relentless melt." Even as they memorialize, they remind us of our own, and the earth's, mutability. We know how quickly our meddling can destroy a natural wonder. And we also know that the life cycle of a waterfall, in geological time, is fairly short. The poignancy of our time -- and of time itself -- is embedded in John Pfahl's beautiful photographs.
copyright, Deborah Tall
Created by The Authors Guild
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