I was rummaging around in the online archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, when I stumbled across a series of photos by the late Joe Deal. I was looking for something completely unrelated, but the images were so strong that I stopped what I was doing and tried to remember what I knew about Deal. It wasn't very much, I'm sorry to say.
I associated him with the New Topographics movement of the 1970s and knew, vaguely, that he was one of the most influential photographers of the late twentieth century. I couldn't say more than that. But I did know that I really liked the photos that I was seeing.
Joe Deal: Grand Prix Car Wash, Long Beach, California, from the Long Beach Documentary Survey Project, 1980. (Smithsonian American Art Museum. Click directly on either of these photos to see a larger versions.)
I love urban landscapes, and I'm a sucker for the sort of plain-spoken, highly detailed directness that you find in Deal's photos. I also like what he chooses to see -- for instance, a tacky car wash with a grandiose name, in a sea of asphalt.
In its obituary, the New York Times said that the New Topographic photographers -- among others, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Nicholas Nixon, Frank Gohlke, Bernd and Hilla Brecher, and, of course, Deal -- "...rejected the sweeping romanticism of [Ansel] Adams and Edward Weston in favor of a... dry-eyed inspection of the modern American landscape and its degradation at the hands of developers, corporations and suburban colonizers." The Los Angles Times agreed, saying that they "...reported with detachment on how the American landscape was changing."
Well, yes. And no. Stylistically, there was certainly a Walker Evans-esque detachment. In the work of the Brechers, especially, it's hard to discern much in the way of emotion. But within the photos of many of the others, there was also, to varying degrees, anger, concern, amusement, lamentation, and, certainly in Deal's case, a sense of the absurd.
Even though my own photography is very different from that of the New Topographic crowd, I've been noticing, over the last few days, how much my seeing, as I walk to work or drive to the mall, has been influenced by theirs.
Joe Deal, 1947-2010. My thoughts are with his family and friends.