Paul Pfeiffer digitally edits sports photographs and videos, removing extraneous figures to isolate unexpected moments of glory on the basketball court. In the process, Pfeiffer transforms NBA players into Northern Renaissance men, as in his Dürer-inspired “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” series. Karen Rosenberg caught up with the New York artist via e-mail.
Let’s start with sports, since we’ve all just had the World Series on the brain.
For me, the fascination of sports is also about an appreciation of perceptual skill—it’s compelling to see a person remain in perfect form despite the lights, cameras, and crowds. It’s not unlike the challenge artists face: How do you make pictures that mean anything at all in a world already oversaturated with images?
How do you select a particular moment?
I look through a tremendous amount of material. It’s like a manual database search in which I’m looking for the one-in-a-thousand image that fulfills a number of criteria—specifically, the rare instance where a central figure’s face is hidden by an arm, a flare from a light. It’s pretty intuitive. And tedious. I usually know I have found something when I retain a memory of the image long after I’ve looked at it.
And you alter photos, erasing someone else’s work even as you’re creating your own.
We’re talking about images that exist in a highly controlled and directed system. A sports photographer takes thousands of shots, and of those maybe a handful are deemed usable. This industry selection process is in many ways totally different, even antithetical to my own. I’m looking for the fly that makes its way into the soup despite all the quality controls. It’s like using a borrowed language.
How do you feel when you’re erasing someone from a frame?
Frame-by-frame editing is meditative, relaxing. You forget you’re staring at a computer screen. It’s like painting—it’s a right-brain activity. At the same time, it’s like factory work: repetitious, mindless.