SO who is Joe Deal? He is a 5'11" right-hander from Topeka who appears on a baseball card wearing a Yankees cap. But he is not a Yankee or any kind of a baseball player. He is one of 134 photographers who appear in the latest offering of American esoterica, photographer baseball cards, bubble gum and all.
The brainchild of 25-year-old Mike Mandel of Santa Cruz, Calif., the cards are selling for $1 per package of 10 in museums and galleries around the country and are being distributed by Light Impressions of Rochester, N.Y. (P.O. Box 3012, Zip 14614, Phone 716-271-8960) for the same price plus 85 cents shipping per order. Mandel began his collection two years ago and, with the help of a friend, Alison Woolpert, traveled to 36 states snapping the portraits of some of America's finest photographers.
He printed 402,000 cards (there are 3,000 complete sets), following the guidelines of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book. "I wanted them to be authentic so people could trade them just like when they were kids," he says. "I love baseball and I get really sad when I think I wasn't around to see some of the great moments."
A Giant fan who grew up in L.A. ("I've always enjoyed being the odd man"), Mandel wrote to Topps Chewing Gum Inc. in Brooklyn, and that traditional supplier of baseball bubble gum responded with 450 pounds of the real thing, charging little more than the cost of shipping. "I guess they enjoyed the spirit of my letter," Mandel says. A good thing, too, because his project has been sponsored by no one but Mandel and he has accumulated sizable debts while compiling the collection. "I don't mind, though," he says. "I think sports are like art; they are in their highest form when they aren't being commercialized."
Best known among the photographers in Mandel's gallery is No. 21, Ansel Adams, whose years of work with the Sierra Club have earned him international fame. Finding the time to pose was the only problem Adams gave Mandel, and after two months of waiting, Mandel got 10 minutes with Adams in Carmel, Calif.
"All my pictures of him were totally underexposed," Mandel says. "I'd fouled up Ansel Adams and I couldn't believe it! I had to tell him. He just said, "We all make mistakes," and two months later I got another 10 minutes." Adams now smiles from behind a catcher's mask, a chest protector over his paisley shirt, mitt in left hand, ball in right.
Adams might be the most famous of the collection, but No. 88 will no doubt become the most sought-after. She is photo matriarch Imogen Cunningham, who at age 92 not only takes pictures but bats and throws right. Ms. Cunningham made it clear from the beginning that she did not want to wear an ordinary baseball costume. "I want to be a Communist. I want to wear a Mao cap," she insisted, and turned down Mandel's suggestion that she wear a Cincinnati Reds cap, instead. "I taught her to throw like a big-leaguer," Mandel says, "and she picked it up quickly." Cunningham's own comment on the back of her card reads, "Apparently do not know enough to quit. 1901—."
Some of Mandel's cards are more interesting on their reverse sides. Besides asking for height, weight, hometown and residences, Mandel instructed his subjects to list their favorite camera, developer, paper, film and photographer. Nearly all took him literally and wrote Rollei SL or Argoflex, Tri-X, Polycontrast and the usual array of letters and numbers only a photographer can decode. But some responded like Bart Parker of Pascagoula, Miss., who listed his favorite paper as the Sunday Chicago Tribune, his favorite film as Young Frankenstein and his favorite photographer as Gina Lollobrigida.
Self-analyses range from Adams' discussion of natural and artificial light to Elliott Erwitt's complete recipe for salsa Bolognese. In between are such comments as Larry Sultan's: "Fear of bat, fear of getting spiked, fear of the crowd. I don't care who they are, all ballplayers are afraid," a quote he attributes to former big-league player and manager Birdie Tebbetts. Since Sultan has misspelled the name ("Birdy Tebbitts") the attribution might be erroneous, too. But who cares? Sultan is a picture-taker, not a baseball librarian.