James R. Dean

James R. Dean, A wild buffalo near Bismarck, ND, Fall, 1978

I sold “Deaner” a Leica M4 a few years ago, and I am sure he’s putting it to good use making new pictures. But I also sense he’s something of an efficiency nut, and doesn’t hesitate to reuse previously published work (of his own). The calendars he’s distributing for 2009 are the same ones he made for 1998; he’s just run a big red marker x through the earlier year and inscribed the new year besides it. Why not? There were extras left over, the months and days all line up again, and the images haven’t spoiled.

James R. Dean, Dip, Avon, MN, October 16, 1999
We’ve never met face-to-face, though I’d know him in a crowd, having seen many images of him over the years. In 1974 and 1975, the twelve-months when he was 26, he made a photograph of himself every day, and pasted it next to a headline from world events. The chronicle, which Dean published a couple of years ago, is dry, dopey, and entirely fascinating, perhaps because of the glaze of distant decades, perhaps because this sort of self-portraiture has rarely been done by a Red River valley iconoclast and part-time architect–a man, no less–who creates self-portraits in the style of Angelo Rizzuto and whose 98/09 calendar includes notes about Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski, Robert Doisneau, Bob Dylan, and Elliott Erwitt, along with a cryptic note on Saturday, February 28 that reads “Last Call, 1 AM, 1991”–sobriety thereafter?
His most recent biographic note includes the following itinerary:

Discounting numerous hotels, motels, and floors of friends, he has lived in one house in St. Louis Park, Minnesota; two apartments in Fargo; one VW bus in Europe and northern Africa; another apartment in Fargo; three apartments in Bismarck; two apartments in St. Paul; and one rented cabin in rural Stearns County, Minnesota. He has been arrested twice and married once.

Like this self-narration, Dean’s photographs are concise, witty, poignant, and loving, and imply worlds beyond the edges of their frames. Even if I’d had the 2009 calendar a decade ago, I wouldn’t mind seeing the photographs again next year. It may not be the big seller that calendars by Michael Kenna or Ansel Adams are, but it, and Dean’s photography overall, rings with truth and clear vision.
James R. Dean lives in Avon, Minnesota. See his web page here.
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