Joe Deal (1947-2010): a tribute and book review of “West and West”

June 23rd, 2010

Joe Deal: West and West

It was with great sadness that I heard the news about Joe Deal’s passing last Friday from Mary Virginia Swanson. As a young photographer studying at Washington University, we were very lucky to have Joe Deal as a dean, an icon, a photographer, a teacher, a mentor, and friend. And through the years, I am thankful for the support he provided to me as I found my own path and voice in the photography world.

I wrote this review of Joe Deal’s book West and West several months ago. Today it was published by photo-eye.

Joe Deal
West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains
112 pages, 51 duotones, 3 maps 10 x 11
Published by the Center for American Places, October 2009
ISBN: 9781935195009

In the midst of all the press surrounding the new “New Topographics” exhibition organized by the George Eastman House and the Center for Creative Photography now on international tour through at least 2012, Joe Deal, one of the original photographers and curators involved in the 1975 pivotal show has added to his oeuvre with a fantastic body of work and book “West and West.” Joe Deal introduces the plates in the book with a wonderfully written essay about the Great Plains and reflections on his own photography over the years. Deal’s written voice is just as important and astute as his photographic one. He begins “[t]he Great Plains of North America exists for me both as a physical landscape and as an idea, or internal landscape.” The Great Plains, as explored by Deal, cover an area larger than I had realized; Deal photographed in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. The black and white photographs reveal a surprisingly nuanced prairie landscape in both its natural topography and in Deal’s mastery of light and shadow. The images are devoid of visible man-made structure, but are constrained in theory by surveyor grid lines and the square-format of the camera. Formerly, in “New Topographics” and his series “The Fault Zone,” Deal often shot from a high vantage point looking down, deleting the horizon from his images, and packing the image with information “each element holding its own weight” each detail just as important as the other. With this new work, however, Deal has tilted his camera up, viewing the Great Plains landscape in all of its expanse. But that expanse is only illusionary. Deal writes, the photographs present “a finite section of the earth and sky and restores them in the imagination to the vastness that now only exists as an idea: the landscape that is contained within the perfect symmetry of the square implies infinity.” These photographs, taken between 2005 and 2007, seem to continue Deal’s exploration of “man-altered landscape” and its boundaries but he focuses on what lies between himself and the horizon and not what may be in his periphery vision. Joe Deal embarked on this journey during his last few years at RISD, recently having retired in 2009. The book and exhibition are poetic and my favorite of his. West and West is on my list of Best Books of 2009.

The exhibition “West and West” in on view at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, June 5-August 1, 2010. The CCP recently acquired Joe Deal’s archive and includes negatives, work prints, ephemera, and a complete set of master vintage prints. The Robert Mann Gallery, who has represented Joe Deal for many years, showed work from this series earlier this year and wrote a wonderful tribute to Joe and his career here. The St. Louis Beacon, the New York Times, and Mary Virginia Swanson have also honored Joe Deal.

We will miss him.

Joe Deal and Larissa Leclair, 1997.

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