These days so much reaches us through television, magazines, and newspapers that it is easy to forget that the photographs we see–and often take as an objective interpretation of reality–are only one way of looking at the world. Yet the fact that a person needs to aim a camera, to frame a scene, before taking a picture makes for an inherent bias. John Pfahl’s photography deliberately reminds us of that bias.

A Distanced Land, a retrospective at the Art Institute that spans almost 20 years, is broken into nine distinct series. The earliest, “Altered Landscapes,” is emblematic. Most of these color prints depict fairly bland landscapes, seemingly not worth a second look, but Pfahl has altered the scenes by adding little bits of human artifacts–string, tape, and so on. The wit of the series lies in the way he has arranged those objects to appear two-dimensional. In Shed With Blue Dotted Lines, for example, three weathered wooden shed doors stand at different angles. Short bits of blue tape make three parallel dotted lines across the doors. At first glance the lines appear horizontal. On closer examination it becomes clear that they range up and down the doors; it is only the trick of perspective that makes them look parallel.

In Red Arrow three trees stand before large boulders. Red dots create an arrow pointing away from the viewer; the central line is placed on the middle trunk, while the dots creating the arrow’s angled lines fall on the other two trees and the boulders. Logically, each successive dot should be farther away, and the head of the arrow should be farthest; but it is actually on the middle tree, closer than the dots on the boulders. Pfahl’s work is clever enough that some of these photographs look like they were made from negatives the photographer altered in the darkroom. But that deceptive appearance is exactly where the trickery comes in; things are not what they first appear.

It’s good to go through the retrospective having viewed “Altered Landscapes” first, because Pfahl raises similar questions throughout his work: How does a photograph frame what we see? How does it distort what we see? How does that framing reflect the way we look at the world? In Pfahl’s later work those questions are raised more subtly, so that the deceptive quality is lodged more completely in the mind of photographer and viewer.

Take for example “Smoke,” a series of beautiful color prints that show clouds billowing out the tops of factory smokestacks. We know that such smoke smells bad, we know it may be unhealthy to breathe, we don’t want it in our neighborhood. And yet these photographs are lovely to look at. Sunlight transforms the clouds into delicately colored billows. The richness of yellow, orange, and gray occasionally rivals that of J.M.W. Turner’s later paintings. And because Pfahl has left in the smokestacks–though they are typically relegated to a corner of the frame–we get a vivid sense of dynamic motion from the plume rushing out of the stack. The landscape–or skyscape, I suppose–is lovely but (a voice speaks from the back of the mind) dangerous too.

The series “Power Places” is even more subtle. Pfahl photographed nuclear and hydroelectric power plants situated in scenic landscapes across the country. At times the results are strikingly beautiful, as in Diablo Dam, which plugs the Skagit River in Washington state. The dam is a concrete stopper in a narrow, rocky gorge; it curves gracefully and meshes lovingly with the ancient cliffs below its steep spillways. The grid of transmission towers and lines in Niagara Power Project reflects the remarkably regular horizontal and vertical cracks in the rock cliff atop which the electric station is built.

Most of “Power Places” features nuclear plants built in what look like otherwise unspoiled landscapes. The danger from such facilities is, of course, exactly what the photographs cannot show, since radiation is invisible. And so the domes and cooling towers become symbols–to some they represent progress, independence from foreign oil, a thriving economy; to others they signify an unacceptably hazardous legacy to our descendants and an addiction to wasteful uses of energy. Explicitly, Pfahl’s photographs fall on neither side of that line, but by looking at them with the skeptical attitude suggested by “Altered Landscapes” we may begin to question why we approach them with a particular opinion, why we believe what we believe, why we look at the world in whatever way we do.

These are important questions, and it is good to see Pfahl raising them as they apply to landscapes. The scenes in “Power Places” are laden with symbols, meaning, and power, as the series’ loaded title indicates. I would argue that the building of nuclear plants may have been a worthwhile exercise if it can teach us to look at such landscapes as truly important places, in which life-and-death decisions are being made. They are not just backdrops.

Pfahl comments ironically on that conception in “Video Landscapes,” for which he photographed TV shows and commercials. He then reprinted selected scenes using the platinum/palladium process, an expensive and time-consuming procedure that allows the photographer considerable latitude in controlling how the final image looks. It is, of course, ironic that he took so much trouble to reproduce scenes that most of us take in for only a moment, if at all, for these landscapes (there are no people in the prints) are ultimately only a backdrop for whatever is going on in the plot of the show or commercial. Though some of these landscapes are striking, featuring waterfalls and deep canyons, they are ultimately expendable, replaceable, evanescent. We can do whatever we want with these places.

The most drastic tool we have for altering the landscape is the nuclear weapon, and Pfahl comments on that technology in the series “Missile/Glyphs.” Each of these pieces juxtaposes two images, one depicting in loving detail the surface of a modern bomb or missile, the other reproducing petroglyphs etched or drawn centuries ago on the rock walls of the American southwest. There are remarkable formal similarities, as when a sizable herd of petroglyphs depicting horned animals (bighorn sheep, perhaps) mirrors the busy pattern of rivets on the gleaming fuselage of a cruise missile. In Minuteman Missile/Galisteo Basin Petroglyphs a cryptic arrow straddling a long sinuous line (is it a snake, or a boundary between two worlds?) leads the eye to the cone of the missile perched at the top of the frame. Here again it is Pfahl’s framing that determines what we see–who would otherwise have thought to see ancient art and missiles in the same light?

“Missile/Glyphs” raises questions: How will our culture be remembered in a half dozen or so centuries? What traces of our lives will be left? Will they be as enigmatic as these rock etchings? Pfahl makes no explicit linkages between the petroglyphs and the missiles, but the juxtaposition may lead us to think about what sort of marks we are leaving on the landscape, and whether they are the sort of legacy we really want.