“I came across her one day, just taking a walk and I sat down with her and started talking. We had a beer here and there. And after a few hours of talking, I was like, do you mind if I photograph you? She was like ‘Well, I mean, I don’t look the best right now. I’m in my pajamas.’ I said that’s perfectly fine. Just sit right there. And I took two frames of it. Then I developed them and put them in the show. And so I invited her out to the show and she started to cry when she saw it, because she had never seen herself portrayed that way or seen herself that way.”
The picture that photographer Colby Deal made that day of Mrs. Shirley became a defining moment in his decision to become a photographer. It signaled a shift in his career by opening up his eyes to the purpose of his work. It showed how what he does is not just for himself but is also for the people that he photographs.
Deal’s path to becoming a photographer was not a straight line. As a kid growing up in Houston’s 3rd Ward, he had always been interested in art though. Deal was always drawing and painting and making and knew from a very young age that becoming an artist was what he wanted to do.
As Colby Deal got older, he was faced with the following questions. How does one make money as an artist? And how do you figure out which medium is the right one for you?
In 2013 Deal received a degree in graphic design from a small community college in Texas. But it was not the career path he had thought it would be. While working when he was in school, he could not see a full time career in an ad agency, and he did not enjoy constantly having to make changes to his work to please clients. So as he thought about what he would do, he decided to change course.
“And then one day I was just sitting and pondering and thought ‘well this is not making me happy.’ And I started to think back, and I always liked to take pictures. I was the friend in the group, that if we were going out, I would say ‘hey, let’s stop at Walgreens and get a few disposables so we could document this night.’ And it just clicked.”
So Deal bought himself a DSLR, and he set to work learning how to make photographs, and how to tell visual stories. As he began photographing life around the 3rd Ward, he also took a class in traditional film photography, and so the seeds were planted for what would become Beautiful, Still.
Deal enjoyed photographing, and the relaxation that came from it. But the project that became the book was not fully formed. He knew he had something to say with the work he was making in the 3rd Ward, but he did not know how to fully express it.
“And so that’s when I enrolled into the University of Houston, and got into their photography program. I did not go to learn how to do photography. I had already taught myself that. It was mainly to get into a particular network and to learn how to express and talk about what I was capturing.”
Through his classes, Deal learned that it was about working to preserve the cultural characteristics that were being erased in the 3rd Ward. And from that experience, the title of Beautiful, Still was born.
“To an outsider, it might look like a dilapidated place and not the best, but to me it’s still beautiful, And the people in this community and stuff that happens to this community may not be the best of all the time, and they go through a lot of shit, but they still stand up and we are still beautiful. And then also it just branches out into society and the current cultural climate. So it’s not just for the Third Ward. It’s just a depiction of one particular place like that’s one of many.”
The death of George Floyd, provoked by a group of white police officers in Minneapolis in 2020 has also had an effect on the work. Floyd had grown up in the Third Ward, and his death shined a spotlight on the community, and its history that stretches back to the aftermath of the Civil War. Although the images Deal took pre-date Floyd’s death, they helped reveal the Third Ward community to the American people.
“Unless you’re from Houston or maybe Louisiana, a lot of people don’t know about the community of the Third Ward. And when that happened to him, everybody knew about 3rd Ward and it was a lot more in the media and people actually would go and research it and look at it and look it up and then they begin to learn about the historical aspect of this community. So I definitely feel it puts a different mystique upon the photographs. Now that the world knows about Third Ward because of George Floyd and this book is perfectly timed with it to show people the place where he came from.”
Today, the attention paid to the neighborhood favors its development and private and public initiatives. “On one hand you’re happy that your community is getting some recognition and resources. But also the more attention that it gets, it does speed up the process of gentrification and development and stuff like that. It’s a give and take and that’s why you have to be particular about the places and establishments and businesses that you put in the community.”
And in creating his photographs, Deal also leaves in what some would call imperfections: the lint, the dust spots, and the smudges on the negatives. But it is not about sloppiness, but rather an artistic turn, and one from history.
“The truth is when when Daguerre, Stieglitz, and other great photographers were trying to get an image on paper, or turn it into a physical thing, it wasn’t about a perfect picture. It was about freezing what your eye saw and putting it on something physical and making it into something physical. That was it. So only later the perfect photograph, the technically sound image, became a thing. That’s why I photograph. “
Unlike Daguerre and Stieglitz, Deal works to present more than just portraits of the people of 3rd Ward. He wants his work to create a more complete view of the area he covers, and present all the aspects to it.
“I don’t want you to see just a bunch of beautiful portraits. I want you to see some portraits. I want you to see some street photography. I want you to see the streets of those people in the portraits. I want you to see the homes of those people in the portraits. I want you to see things that are happening in the community.”
Colby Deal’s Beautiful, Still can be purchased through Mack Books for £40.00.