Deal was born in Topeka, Kansas on August 12, 1947, and was raised in Albany, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. After his graduation in 1970, he was designated as a conscientious objector by the local draft board and was assigned to work as a guard and janitor at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and its museum of photography. He later earned a master's degree in photography and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico.
While working on his thesis for his MFA degree in the 1970s Deal started teaching at the University of California, Riverside, where he helped establish the UCR/California Museum of Photography. In 1989, he became dean of the School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis. He was named to serve as provost of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island 1999, and lived there for the remainder of his life.
In the mid-1970s, Deal was one of nine photographers chosen to participate in the "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" exhibition curated by William Jenkins at the Eastman House's International Museum of Photography. Deal contributed 18 black and white photographs to the exhibit in a 32 cm × 32 cm format. Many of the photographs Deal submitted featured homes newly constructed against the desolate landscape of the American Southwest.
He continued photographing man's effect on the landscape in "The Fault Zone", which featured images combining human and geologic effects on the area surrounding the San Andreas Fault. "Subdividing the Inland Basin" featured suburban areas east of Los Angeles and "Beach Cities" focused on Pacific Ocean communities in Southern California. "West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains" featured photographs of the grid pattern of much of the Midwestern United States and was on exhibit at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona after opening at the Rhode Island School of Design and being presented at New York City's Robert Mann Gallery.
A ten-year resident of Providence, Rhode Island, Deal died at a hospice there due to bladder cancer at age 62 on June 18, 2010. He is survived by his wife, Betsy Sara Ruppa, and a daughter, Meredith Deal.
- Grimes, William. "Joe Deal, a Landscape Photographer of Disquieting Images, Dies at 62", The New York Times, June 22, 2010. Accessed June 23, 2010.
- Otten, Liam. "Joe Deal, former art school dean, acclaimed photographer, 62", Washington University in St. Louis, June 22, 2010. Accessed June 23, 2010.
- Duffy, Robert. "Joe Deal broke ground in photography, led academically", St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2010. Accessed June 23, 2010.