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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.

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