"Art -- or what we call that...you can love it and appreciate it but you can't really talk about it."
So says William Eggleston toward the end of Michael Almareyda's film, William Eggleston in the Real World
. Maybe not: maybe we can't "talk about" what "we call" art. But we certainly want to. And I want to talk about (and somehow better understand) this photographer who is so elusive and, it now seems, so hugely important, so everywhere that for years I didn't even notice him. Willliam Eggleston is the most famous American photographer I have ignored for the past thirty years. Why? Whatever the reason, that suddenly makes him interesting to me.
Peter Schjeldahl, my perennial art-talk point of reference, has talked about Eggleston, of course. He "does" Eggleston, with his usual fluency (I won't say glibness), in a 2008 New Yorker
article, "Local Color: William Eggleston at the Whitney
," occasioned by a big show of the photographer's work therre that year. (I remember now; I saw it.) "Local Color" he calls his article, obviously, because Eggleston is credited with being the first art photographer who had a big show, in the 1970's, organized by John Szarkowski, the hugely influential photography curator at MoMA -- exclusively of color work, a shocker coming at a time when art photography was still thought to be something that had to be done in black and white -- or it wasn't "art"; it was publicity, or fashion, or snapshots, or porn. The Szarkowski MoMA was a key event, but Eggleston didn't invent color photography as art. By the very early Eighties there was an influential book called The New Color Photography,
edited by Sally Eauclaire, a virtual Bible of the field, featuring a whole set of other photographers also already working in color as well, including Stephen Shore, among others. Great photographers had worked in color for ever, Henri Cartier Bresson had color photos in Holiday
magazine in the Fifties, even if nobody paid that much attention back then. The trouble is color is
more frivolous in a way, more anecdotal, more "pretty." Black and white will always be starker, more elegant, more dramatic.
I missed Eggleston's early MoMA show, and a switch to color didn't seem that big a deal to me; after all, color photographs were everywhere. Nor did I personally relate much to Eggleston. Did his photographs seem a mixture of Robert Frank and vernacular snapshot style, pehaps? I didn't think about them much. It was hard to know how to take them. I looked at his photographs only with mild interest -- never recognized that his achievement was special, if at all, until years after Sally Eauclaire's book.
The difficulty of getting a purchase on him is that he's such a chameleon. Eggleston copies or adapts everybody, really: Robert Frank, Cartier Bresson, Diane Arbus, the southern art photographers, Winogrand and Friedlander. Eggleston does Robert Frank, with colo
rEggleston does Meatyard with a dash of Arbus Eggleston does Friedlander, minus the witSometimes they don't look like anything; Danny Lyon?
Or did they all copy from him?
Almareyda's 2005 film about him had some effect on me, a stealth depth charge planted then that has gone off now seven years later on re-watching the film, because it preserves Eggleston in action. In an opening sequence that means nothing to many but everything to a photographer we see Eggleston shambling around on a winter evening with one of his sons taking pictures in another southern state. It's the most exciting part of the film. Watching a great photographer at work tells you more than any lecture or book. Time passes and he's getting drunk with his girlfriend -- he is clearly an alcoholic, and a guiltless, unregenerate smoker -- and being laconic with Almareyda and in front of audiences where he is "lecturing" on his work. He is decadent, and his talent is not hampered by such details as his drunkenness but almost set off more dramatically by it. Now I get it: he is a great disabled artist, a decadent figure of the deep south, elegant, lazy but focused, making photographs, on and on, building a huge body of distinctive work, driven with the addict's desperate drive to get the work out, no matter what, as long as you can.
What emerges is that Eggleston blends many, unusually many, influences, and Cartier Bresson is mentioned as an important early one. But he is different from others like Stephen Shore not only because of the multiplicity of sources but particularly because, though he has traveled far and wide, he has lived in Tennessee all his life. He is deeply, distinctly a southerner. Listen to his voice. He speaks with a carefully timed slow southern drawl. (That line at the top sounds much more oracular and profound when you hear him say it.) He is indeed from an old southern family, from money, I suppose. How many of them were alcoholics? It comes with the territory. And the southernness makes you line up his influences differently. Certain photographs of his that might look like Diane Arbus really turn out to link up better with Clarence John Laughlin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard -- those photographers who had the decadence, crumbling statuary, children posed in masks. However, he has given an Arbus edge to them Meatyard's and Laughlin's didn't have. And there's an air of bedroom exposure, too, as in Nan Goldin's Eighties saga The Ballad of Sexual Dependency
Eggleston stayed (though not exclusively) in the South but he's made his scenes more universal, sensational, flashy, simpler. He hasn't stuck to his children and his backyard (like that family girl, Sally Mann) but moved out into the everyday junk of honky tonks, signage. But in doing so he returned to Walker Evans -- in pastel tints.
Ironically I now can see many of the photographers I have admired united in this one who never mattered to me. The tot's eye view makes a heroic tricycle.Even his look under the bed is famous.
Maybe the unique feature -- and key to the "greatness" I didn't notice -- of William Eggleston's photography is that he shoots everything. It is his ability to shoot a tricycle, a bare lightbulb (but in a seedy ceiling that's all red), bright sunlight in the corner of a kitchen, and so forth, so many
things, or just a patch of light, a piece of cloth hanging on a wall, and yet also people, that sets him apart from most photographers who are chronicling things. He also has a knack for high and low, literally, pointing the camera up and shooting down to the ground, under a bed, or the tot's-eye view making for his "heroic" tricycle. .............
He is just shooting, only one shot of each thing, then he moves on to the next thing. Almareyda says according to Eggleston he's taken, by then, 25,000 photos. And no duplicates, so that's a lot. Only trouble is, he's now being sued for doing big digital blowups of his "iconic" images, diluting the value of the vintage versions. So, duplicates, after all. (It's okay to go big, but he shouldn't recycle.)
If what Eggleston says in Almareyda's film is true, whatever format he's shooting in he has no contact sheets, but uses everything, has every shot printed and keeps them all. This is different from the famous Winogrand barrels of undeveloped rolls of film, the opposite, really, and more bold and extraordinary, and also an artistic song of joy in the visual, as well as a declaration of confidence. And in one of the drunken moments in the film he says "I don't make mistakes." He has all his decisive moments, but they include much that is trivial and obscure. This is what Schjledahl is stating in somewhat pretentious words when he speaks of Eggleson as working out of "a stoical loathing, unblinking in the face of one scandalously uncongenial otherness after another." But as we see Eggleston actually shooting, this turns into a conceit, because in fact he delights
in what he finds "just the way it is" and in beautiful light he finds in a shed, garage, or wrecked house, which turns into a great series of shots, like John Divola's "Zuma" series but with more rapid and seemingly casual execution. One key thing: he is moving, but most of his subjects are not. He hasn't done one of these:Henri Cartier BressonBeauty anywhere (color helps) Divola "Zuma" series
With his rude looks into the bedroom now and again, he evokes Nan Goldin. Or did she copy him? (In fact his photo below was taken several years before Nan began her series.)Eggleston in the bedroom Nan Goldin photo
But he is not titillating with disastrous lives. No Larry Clark for him.
Almareyda's intimately meandering film also shows several of Eggleson's cameras, which are good ones, ideally chosen for their purposes, a silver Contax G2, for instance, for shooting fast around the Getty Museum. This seems to be a favorite. He has more than one of them
. In fact, he likes cameras. [Photo for Wall Street Journal.]
And of course we learn a little about Dye Transfer Prints, the complicated, now rare, color printing method that Egglsteon still has done. He is an instinctive shooter who is also a fine technician. But like Bresson, he never makes the prints (he made black and white ones at one time).
Schjldahl's New Yorker
piece adds more names and facts omitted from Almareyda's film that are useful to us in getting to know Eggleston, I suppose, specifying his lineage and money and calling him "a pertinaciously slumming aristocrat," saying he "shoots like a shutterbug and executes like a painter," which however it may be doubletalk helps us to visualize his style. But Almareyda's pictures are worth a thousand of Schjeldahl's words. And Almareyda's musings about Eggleston may be pretentious and silly and mocked by Eggleston's laconicism, but they're also smart and born of years of personal familiarity with and access to the photographer. Almareyda is the director of the slyly original modern-day version of Hamlet
starring Ethan Hawke; he's original, and no mere dabbler or tourist. Though Almareyda tries to put together words narrating his Eggleston film, he doesn't push them too hard and allows Eggleston to dodge and mock them in the end. The whole point is that the images can't be duplicated or described or otherwise connected-to with words. Hence Schjeldahl's words are all very well, but they won't really do for the most quintessentially wordless and instinctive of photographers. The film does a rare justice to its subject. The drunken passages underline that. They are shocking and embarrassing at first, but you have to come to terms with them and in doing so will get closer to understanding Eggleston than through any of Schjeldahl's words.
All this was inspired by the show of Eggleston at the Met, "At War with the Obvious, Photographs by William Eggleston," February 26–July 28, 2013, a big room full of uniform-sized color images that I found curiously disappointing. With photographs there is the problem of the object, their reproducability, and these prints are neither ordinary nor spectacular enough to strike the eye; besides, they are too familiar because Eggleston's vision, perpetrated subtly through other photographers for forty years now, is too pervasive. Maybe the best thing Schjledahl wrote was that Eggleston "convinces you that you don’t understand photography nearly as well as you thought you did." His vision, after all the appropriations all his life, still emerges as distinctive. But what is it? It's in the camera. Some of the great photographers let the camera do the work. I still haven't a firm relationship with Eggleston. So many other photographers impressed and influenced me instead. But Almareyda has made him a figure who'll haunt me when I have a camera in my hand.
________________________________________________....................................................................................CHRIS KNIPP on FLICKR