“Photographs act as vehicles of litigation against the slippage of the tightly bound spool of memory,” writes Garry Reece, in an essay that concludes Beautiful, Still. (2022, Mack Books), a monograph by photographer Colby Deal documenting the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston, where Deal grew up, and where his grandmother continues to live today. He began photographing Third Ward in 2013, returning repeatedly to reinforce his relationship with the community as reciprocal, longstanding, and sincere.
The result is a series of untitled images that sometimes capture very little on an individual basis, but an entire world when taken in aggregate — as seems to be Deal’s intention, presenting them without any further context, besides Reece’s essay as epilogue and an opening poem by Hakim Furious.
“Litigation” is a choice phrase for this collection of black-and-white images, which largely document rather than compose scenes. Some people pose for portraits, but even the intentionally staged works feature informality of presentation and setting. Some of them seem extremely offhand, capturing almost arbitrary subjects blurred by motion or set at slightly skewed angles — a random truck parked in a lot at night, children playing, a trash-strewn residential street, a woman by the window, a bike tipped wheels-up for repair, sunlight filtering through overgrown backyard foliage. It would be difficult to argue some of them as terrific standalone images, but Deal seems to be offering them into the record as evidence of something beyond superficial beauty. Something that is not just beautiful, but beautiful still, in spite of the difficulty.
I’ve never been to Houston, barely been to Texas. But as I look through Beautiful, Still. from here in Detroit, I can feel a kind of kinship with the multilayered nature of life in a city that has seen successive waves of development, white flight, and regentrification. With rare exception, the images presented by Deal in this book could have just as easily been taken in any other minority-majority city or neighborhood that has seen hard times. I can’t decide if it’s a quibble with the work or a testament to its relatability, but insofar as both Deal and Reece frame this work as a kind of love letter to Third Ward, its details are perhaps too universal.
“[Deal’s images] are part documentary, part portraiture, part snapshot and they flourish in that liminal space between individual and communal memory,” writes Reece. This is apt framing for Deal’s work, but it sidesteps the pitfall of communal memory, which is that it lacks a real point of view, a certain sharpness. Deal’s work encourages the viewer to see everything as part of the picture, because to his eye, everything is beautiful. Maybe asserting pride of place is impactful enough as a statement — like many lower-income neighborhoods, Third Ward is increasingly threatened by encroaching developments, in this case the University of Houston — but somewhere in the blur of all this black and white, a place that Deal obviously sees in so much color starts to turn a bit grey.
Beautiful, Still. by Colby Deal (2022) is published by Mack Books and is available online and at independent booksellers.
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