‘Indian Bingo’ by Joe Deal features part of the Morongo Reservation in California. The New York Times describes Deal as “a photographer who broke with the romantic tradition of Ansel Adams to document, with scientific detachment, a Western landscape reshaped by human hands.” (1) ‘Indian Bingo’ is a prime example of this alternative representation of the American landscape.
The Washington University newsroom also comments on Deal’s works, saying that:
“Rather than celebrate a sublime landscape ostensibly untouched by human intervention, Deal focused on the tensions between the built environment and nature, often choosing sites and views that conventionally were considered not worth capturing with a camera[.]” (2)
Looking at Deal’s work, I think these comments are accurate. His landscapes do not have the majestic quality that is found in many 18th/19th century paintings, in which the frontier and the taming of the wilderness were celebrated. At first glance, many of his photographs are rather non-descript, often lacking objects of interest in the foreground which would create depth and detail. However, Deal was one of a group of photographers who were part of the ‘New Topographic Movement’. This movement concentrated on creating photographic images that presented American landscapes less romantically and more ‘realistically’. (This term is used very loosely and will be challenged later on.) Rather than celebrating the beauty of America, these images concentrated on critiquing the human impact on nature. (3)
It is difficult to find accurate information about when ‘Indian Bingo’ was taken. Although several sources date the image to 1974, which would be consistent with the time that Deal’s work was featured in the Topographics exhibitions, the Indian bingo halls were not built in this area until 1983. Today, the Morongo reservation has developed into one of the largest casino and spa resorts in the US, which covers over 35,000 acres of land and cost over $250 million. However, in spite of this obvious sign of consumerism, the Morongo Indians still strive to remember their roots, and to educate others about it too, as is demonstrated on their web site. This information, and the photograph itself, shows how Native Americans struggle to survive in modern society while still preserving their heritage and history. (4)
The most striking aspect of the photograph is how man-made objects overlap and conceal the natural landscape in the picture. The overheard power lines, the ‘Indian Bingo’ sign and the buildings behind all suggest a disregard for the natural environment. This in and of itself is a puzzling notion when associated with the Native Americans, who are known for their love and respect for the land they live on.
Therefore, this photograph does not only demonstrate how humans have impacted on the natural landscape of America. It also represents the Native Indians’ struggle to be recognised and appreciated within their own country. The only way that they can be noticed, and survive financially, is to conform to the traditional white American values of consumerism. To preserve their heritage they have to in fact go against their beliefs. The fact that the information about their heritage is on the Internet, for example, is very telling of the balance between traditional values and modern technology that the Morongo Indians must endure.
When asked to describe his photography, Deal likened his images to the work of a survey photographer. By imagining a grid when composing a shot, Deal’s approach to photography has become regarded as precise and scientific. His images often have an almost clinical feel to them, which contrasts greatly with the richness of landscape photography by others such as Ansel Adams. (5)
This grid-like composition can also be related to the idea of the rule of thirds, which is a popular way of framing images in photography and other forms of art in which the image can be split into three distinct sections. Following this rule is believed to make images more aesthetically pleasing. With ‘Indian Bingo’, however, the division of the sky, background and foreground instead emphasises just how imposing man-made objects have become. The barbed wire in the foreground indicates that the ground is no longer lush and safe to walk on. The mountains are blocked from view by the sign which promises greed and gambling and the sky is obscured by the overhead cables. All this reiterates the idea of human products encroaching on nature
As a result of this, and the photograph being a closed-in shot, a sense of claustrophobia is created. Rather than America’s landscapes being a place of freedom and vast beauty, Deal’s views represents the landscape as if it is shrinking and being swallowed up by man-made objects.
Finally, many argue that photography presents a far more realistic image than a painting or drawing ever could. A photograph of a landscape, compared to a painting of the same area, may look incredibly different. Traditionally, it is thought that landscape paintings create a sense of romanticism, a nostalgic and positive view of America. Photography, in contrast, was believed to reveal the truth about a particular piece of land. In the same way that early cinema is often regarded as realist, photography is often seen as a reliable and accurate source of visual information.
However, this is rarely the truth. As has already been mentioned, ‘Indian Bingo’ has been carefully composed in order to create the most visual impact possible. The image is constructed and therefore does not represent a true image of that landscape but rather an impression or interpretation. While it can be argued that Deal’s photography is more ‘realistic’ than the romantic landscape paintings, it should not be forgotten that every image – painting or photograph – is a construction which has been created based on the artist’s perspective and opinions.
In conclusion, Deal’s work was part of the new Topographic movement, which rejected the traditional landscape images of such photographers as Ansel Adams. Instead, Deal’s photographs aimed to show the American landscape affected by man-made objects in order to demonstrate how the natural beauty of the land is slowly being destroyed. ‘Indian Bingo’, however, could also be read as a critique of the treatment of Native Americans, and how they struggle to maintain their heritage while also making a living in a society that has become obsessed with consumerism.