Joe Deal dies at 62; photographer documented man-made changes to the landscape

Joe Deal, a photographer who documented Southern California's increasingly man-made landscape as a pioneer of an influential fine-art movement known as New Topographics, has died. He was 62.

Deal, a former UC Riverside photography professor who also chronicled the building of the Getty Center, died June 18 of bladder cancer at a hospice-care facility in Providence, R.I., said his wife, Betsy Ruppa.

In 1975, he was one of 10 young American photographers whose work was showcased in a landmark exhibition, "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

The show, restaged last fall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, identified a phenomenon: photographers who had moved away from romanticizing scenery and instead reported with detachment on how the American landscape was changing.

Deal's stark black-and-white images often framed suburban sprawl in the West. In one, a string of houses intrudes on an otherwise remote Albuquerque setting. In another, the wryly titled "Inversion Layer," a new Chino Hills home sits beside its smog-obscured view.

As the Eastman's exhibition manager at the time of the "New Topographics" exhibit, Deal also was a primary collaborator with show curator William Jenkins.

Together, the two "crystallized" something that had been in the air, Frank Gohlke, one of the "New Topographics" photographers, told The Times last year.

When Deal moved west in 1976, he was attracted by the idea of greater Los Angeles as a subject and joined UC Riverside as an instructor. He also helped found the UCR/California Museum of Photography and later served as an associate dean.

Early on, Deal was fascinated by the idea of earthquake fault lines "as the under road to architecture, and it occurred to him that it was a powerful metaphor," said Colin Westerbeck, director of the UCR museum.

Deal's first portfolio, 1981's "The Fault Zone," presented life along the San Andreas Fault, contrasting desert scenes with suburbia's mushrooming housing developments.

"Fault Zone" stood out because "it was a refined version" of the New Topographics aesthetic of objectivity, said Britt Salvesen, curator of photography at LACMA. "He was able to communicate a preservationist's sense with economic means. The result was very, very powerful."

Deal was already documenting the construction of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1980s when he agreed to do the same for the Getty Center on the Westside.

The Getty site interested him because it was "in a highly developed area" of Los Angeles, Deal told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1997. "It gave me the opportunity to do something right in the city that I had been doing on the edges for years."

As the assignment stretched on, Deal abandoned it for logistical reasons. In 1989, he had left UC Riverside to become dean of the art school at Washington University in St. Louis.

During the first phase of the Getty project, he recorded the relatively natural state of the hill before construction. When Getty officials asked him to return to document the actual build, he came for a look on April 29, 1992, the first day of the Los Angeles riots.

"The site I had known so well now looked like the surface of the moon," Deal, who camped on the hilltop during the riots, said in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And in the distance, you could see the smoke and fire."

After coming back to the project, he visited every few months. When the Getty Center opened in 1997, his photographs hung within.

Joseph Maurice Deal was born Aug. 12, 1947, in Topeka, Kan., to Percy and Laura Deal, and grew up in Topeka, Albany, Mo., and St. Paul, Minn. His father was a hospital administrator.

A high school teacher cultivated his interest in photography; but Deal, who was shy, also liked the pursuit's solitary nature, his wife said.

After obtaining a bachelor's degree in fine art from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1970, Deal earned a master's in photography and a master of fine arts in photography from the University of New Mexico.

He received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 and 1980 and from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1983.

From 1999 to 2005, Deal was provost of the Rhode Island School of Design and taught there until last year.

When the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park surveyed Deal's work in 1992, Times art critic William Wilson observed that Deal showed "affection for things" in "aesthetically moving compositions" of Carbon Canyon's branches and vines.

"He clearly loves their Pollockesque texture," Wilson wrote, and the images showed "that Deal is an artist before he is a social commentator."

In addition to Betsy, his wife of nearly 19 years, Deal is survived by his daughter, Meredith Ivy Deal, of Boston; and his father, Percy Deal, of Albuquerque.