Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: September 2010

A few days ago, West by West by Joe Deal arrived in the mail.  I’ve been aware of Joe Deal for nearly as long as I’ve been a photographer, mostly because of his inclusion in the “New Topographs” show in 1975, but also because the handful of images of his I saw revealed a clarity and precision of vision unique to his work.   The 1992 publication of Southern California Photographs 1976-1986 seemed both a bit late (the art world seemed to have moved on to other topics by then), but powerful and authoritative, proof that Joe was the real Deal.

Joe Deal Wash, Red Hills, 2007

The new work, West by West, displays the same clarity and precision, though this time the topography he explores is not new, but as old as the hills.  The subject of these photographs is the natural landscape of the Great Plains.   Each photograph includes a foreground, usually of grass, a horizon placed near the center of the frame, and a sky above—but each image is alive with light and shadow, and ultimately the subject becomes the space and the silence.  There are no roads and no fences in these photographs (there are a few ruts in the grass), and the sense of unbroken space evokes memories of wilderness before parks were necessary.  One feels that you could walk forever in silence into these pictures.

Joe Deal Sunlight and Shadow, Missouri Plateau, 2005

In the introductory essay, Deal writes of his memory of his childhood, growing up in Kansas, traveling through these spaces in the family car.  The photographs in this book were made between 2005 and 2007, but his death in June 2010 from cancer at age 62 brings a poignancy to this work:  did he know when he made this work that the end was near?  I don’t know.  But there is comfort in these images, in the survival of the space, in the silence, in care and love with which he shows us this landscape.

When I began making photographs in 1977 in an art photography class at the small college I was attending, the art majors all talked about the importance of defining a “style”, a unique look to their pictures.  As an alien in this world (I was a physics major), it made little sense to me why one should go about defining a style (physic majors didn’t really bother about such things—just keeping up with the work load and not flunking out was hard enough) let alone how.   Besides, most of my effort was spent learning the rudiments of the craft, at the start how to avoid the worst mistakes, then later how to control the process, and trying to imitate photographs in magazines.    I must admit that I did not know why some photographs published in books were thought to be better than mine—I was especially appalled at the scratches and cracked emulsions of Atget—hell, I could do better than that.  Of course, most of my photographs from that period have, over the years, found their proper place in the world, in the trash can.

8-5732 Canwell Glacial River, August 2010

I’m not sure when I first became aware of how powerful the viewpoint of a single photographer could be—maybe it was first from books,  Robert Frank’s Americans, or Walker Evans Message from the Interior.  I do know that seeing the Robert Adams “New West” show at the Philadelphia Museum in 1982 was transformative.  Those pictures were so simple, so obvious, so clean—a style so transparent it seems not to be a style at all (I think that was how Szarkowski described Walker Evans, but it seems even more true of Robert Adams).    So I began imitating Adams, photographing the landscape as I thought he would have, had he lived in Pennsylvania rather than in Colorado.    But I soon discovered that imitation is not as easy as it looks—pictures fail in many ways—but sometimes the failures are instructive.   East coast light is different than Colorado light—I think that was when I started paying attention to Atget’s use of morning light—and trying to use it, pointing my lens into the sun, using the glow.  But mostly I just kept making photographs.

Now I’ve been making photographs for 33 years, and I haven’t thought about developing a style for a long time.  But a few weeks ago I had a discussion with another photographer about how Lee Friedlander’s work is so distinctive—you can pick out one of his pictures out of a book—you just know it’s a Friedlander.  Then we pulled a box of my photographs off the shelf, and started looking through them, pictures from this summer, Alaskan Landscapes.   And halfway through the box, like some kind of epiphany, hey, these are my pictures.  These are pictures I made, and in making them, I made many decisions—what camera to use, where to go to look for photographs, where to stop the car, where to set up the tripod, how to frame the picture, when to trip the shutter—and in printing, how big to make the print, what settings to use on the printer, what paper.  And in looking at them I suddenly realized that I make different decisions than any other photographer I know—in subject, in framing, in presentation…

8-5740 Tundra, Petersville Road, September 2010

I own these pictures. So is this my “style”?  Damned if I know.  I’m still just trying to do my work…

OK, so Friedlander didn’t show up in person, but he sure was here in book form–

Friedlander Night in Fairbanks, September 6, 2010

I pulled my Friedlander books  off the shelf (35 of them, if my records are correct), invited some friends over, bought a jug of wine and three pounds of burger, and all of us were amazed (and intimidated) by the volumes of work…  Fortunately, no wine was spilled, and the conversation was wonderful.  Maybe we’ll do it again, after his next 35 books…

One reason why is seems so hard to believe that we emit so much carbon dioxide is that we never see it.   If we make a visible mess of things, there tends to be a lot of pressure to clean up our act, but burning fossil fuels is a real disappearing act.  The gas we put in our cars, or the firewood we put in a stove, or the coal going into a power plant just disappears—so there is nothing to clean up.  It’s already clean.

The exception for combustion is when it gets really cold—like it does in Fairbanks in the depths of winter.   The CO2 never condenses at these temperatures, but the water vapour that accompanies the combustion will—and the clouds from these persist long enough to give a sense of the volume of emissions we leave loose in the atmosphere.

8-4778 17th and Cushman, 2008

I remember once driving from Fairbanks to Anchorage on Thanksgiving.  It was about -37 F in Fairbanks when we left in mid-morning, and even colder at noon when we passed though the flats south of Nenana—it was at least -50, maybe colder.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road, and we passed only a handful of cars.  The sun was out, barely clearing the southern horizon,  and I remember looking in the rear-view mirror of my Honda Civic, and realized that I was leaving a contrail on the road behind me—a visible vapor trail from my exhaust, just like the jet trails high in the atmosphere.