This article originally appeared in the September 14, 2016 edition of The Villager. See exhibition details at bottom.
In the age of the selfie, when tens of millions of people are photographing every aspect of their lives on cell phones, how does a photographer distinguish himself among the daily avalanche of images on social media?
“I think an artist uses a camera as a way of seeing, as a way of responding to the world,” said Todd Deutsch.
Deutsch was busy last week arranging photographs for his current exhibit, “Between Rivers,” which is on display through October 21 in the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery of the Visual Arts Building at St. Catherine University where he works as an associate professor of studio art.
“It’s the artist’s particular and disciplined view that matters,” said Deutsch, “along with the specialized skills—technically and compositionally—that enable him or her to tell a story that is hopefully unique.”
“Between Rivers” is a collection of photographs taken in Deutsch’s hometown of Prescott, Wisconsin, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.
Through his lens, Prescott, despite its lush environs, is a town of vacant shops and isolated citizens. The only crowd of people that can be seen is on the frozen surface of the St. Croix where they have gathered to icefish under a leaden sky. A weathered liquor store looks as if it were patched together by a mob of inebriated customers—a tableau straight out of Depression era photographer Walker Evans’ playbook. Brassy trombones lie discarded on a field, behind a tuba trailing off into the distance. No one is in sight; it’s as if a neutron bomb had suddenly vaporized the high school band.
“I’ve lived in Prescott for the last 17 years, but I still feel like an outsider,” Deutsch said. “I guess the feeling comes across in many of the photographs. There’s definitely something in using a camera that, if you’re lucky, reflects how you feel about your subject. I don’t think it’s an aspect of the work that you can conjure up consciously.
“Of course, you have to be judicious in your editing, searching for the photograph that tells the story,” he said. “My wife Heidi, who I met as an undergrad at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, is someone who I value as an editor of my work. She’s a critic I can trust.”
Carol Chase, the chair of St. Catherine’s Art and Art History Department, has seen much of Deutsch’s work over the years. “What I appreciate in Todd’s photos is their reveal,” she said. “At first, you may feel the pictures are somewhat ordinary. But then their pathos and humor unfold in front of you. They’re quite remarkable. I like to think of Todd’s pictures as sly dogs.”
Deutsch built his reputation on earlier projects, such as “Gamers,” photographs he took of an assemblage of computer game aficionados. Some of the images are disturbing. In one, a slack-jawed teenager gazes vacantly into a screen while thumbing his controller, leaving the viewer wondering if anyone has checked the boy’s pulse recently.
“I shot ‘Gamers’ in 2005,” Deutsch said. “These guys would get together in what they call LAN-parties, which stands for Local Area Network. They’d rent out a storefront and rig their computers up to play games in groups. It was a culture I knew nothing about. They were a weird group of guys, but they offered new possibilities for photographs.”
Some of Deutsch’s best work can be found in “Family Drift,” a series he described as “an autobiographical project based on family, fatherhood and young sons.” A child’s hand holds the inevitable baby tooth. A weary toddler with a tear-streaked face wipes his eyes while seated before an array of crumbs lying across the plastic surface of his highchair’s tray. One can see in the background an empty plate of what must have been chocolate pudding lying atop a picnic table beside comic books and a homemade slingshot. Two boys romp on a hammock. One of them lies face down in the hammock, which is perpendicular to the ground, as the other prepares to make another push. The photograph has a certain tension that intrigues the viewer, tempting him to linger and puzzle over its wacky geometry.
“I began working on the family stuff just after my first son was born in ’97, and it’s been a work-in- progress ever since,” Deutsch said. “I’ll probably have another series from the family to exhibit sometime in the future.”
Deutsch’s photographs are included in the collections of the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Portland Art Museum. His photos have appeared in the magazines Real Simple, New Scientist (United Kingdom), Nido (Germany) and Vision (China). His portraits of gamers were published as a monograph in 2008 by Fabio Paris Gallery in Brescia, Italy.
Deutsch was born in Minneapolis but grew up in Buffalo, Minnesota. He earned his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Michigan and has taught at St. Kate’s for 18 years. Besides a class in modern photography and digital storytelling, he teaches an introductory class on the use of black-and- white film and the darkroom processes of developing and printing as well as a foundation-level class on two-dimensional design.
“Todd is an outstanding teacher and the students love him,” said Nicole Watson, director of the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery and a graduate of St. Catherine’s who studied under Deutsch while pursuing a degree in graphic arts. “He cares about photography and his passion for it infects his students.”
As an associate professor, Deutsch said, “I enjoy being in the conversation about art and photography. We have students from a variety of cultures, and I learn about how they see the world and sometimes their difficulties in it. The job is always offering me new perspectives.”
"Between Rivers" is on display at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery through October 21, with an opening reception on September 17, 6-8 p.m. Deutch will appear at an informal gallery talk on October 6 at 1:30 p.m.
Questions? Contact Ann Buchen at email@example.com or (651) 690-6636.