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SOUTHERN LIVING IN LIVING COLOR: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF WILLIAM EGGLESTON

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 13 JANUARY 2009 — In art, as in religion, great stories are retold until they become part of the liturgy. Such a liturgical story clearly inspired the retrospective William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008 , now on view in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Like many retrospectives, it turns the works on view into iconography in support of the liturgy, which is easily summarized:

In 1939, William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee and later raised in Sumner, Mississippi, a small town in the Delta region. Eggleston became a bit of what northerners still call a southern gentleman. (It is said he takes pride in never having worn jeans in public.) He attended three colleges and graduated from none of them, landed in the middle of the hard-living Memphis music scene and, in the mid-1970s, helped reinvent fine-art photography.


William Eggleston: Memphis, 1965,
from the series Los Alamos, 1965 - 1974
Dye-transfer print
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

Sparks ignited in youth will burn as lifelong passions in the gifted; for Eggleston, ignition came when he got hold of the Henri Cartier-Bresson's book The Decisive Moment , which appeared in the United States in 1952. The "decisive moment" refers to that instant during which the unstaged image comes together; snap the shutter a fraction of a second earlier or later, and it is lost. The book, with its 126 black-and-white photographs, (many of them now regarded as masterpieces), proved that, what is now called documentary photography could conjure art from the happenstance and intermittent confusion of ordinary life.


William Eggleston:
Sumner, Mississippi, 1972
Cassidy Bayou in background

© Eggleston Artistic Trust

In the mid-1960s, soon after he began photographing in earnest, Eggleston veered from that black-and-white tradition, into color. At the time, with photography barely accepted as an art in traditional circles, art photography didn't accept color. There were aesthetic reasons: art photography has always struggled to prove that it is not a literal record made by an electro-mechanical device with a human attached. Black-and-white film helped by abstracting the subject into shades of monotone; color was seen as a crutch for literal thinkers and pretty-picture makers such as advertisers, postcard printers and amateurs. The more compelling concern, however, was archival preservation. At that point in history, the standard chromogenic print process produced images that, as the joke went, started fading as soon as you took them from the printer - not an ideal level of stabililty for collectible art.


William Eggleston:
Untitled, c. 1975
Dye-transfer print
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

Although Eggleston worked with a respect for the precision that formed the core of decisive-moment school of photography, he reinterpreted it with the aesthetic of the common snapshot - which he got to see firsthand whenever he had his own prints made at the local photo processor. He next added a technical coup: he found a lab in Chicago that would make prints by use of the dye transfer process. Notoriously complex (and expensive), dye transfer, which was only in common use by advertisers, saturated the colors and, most importantly, produced a print with a degree of permanence acceptable enough for collectors. (As with many other good things, it has been superseded, but not quite equalled, by digital processes.)


William Eggleston: Troubled Waters
115/8 x 17¼in

© Eggleston Artistic Trust

Eggleston found a mentor and editor in John Swaroszki, who was the chief photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1976, culling from Eggleston's considerable portfolio of images, Swaroszki put on an Eggleston retrospective - the first solo exhibition in the museum's history devoted to color photography - and, as they used to say in Hollywood, a star was born.


William Eggleston: Untitled, 1965-68 and 1972-74, from Los Alamos, 2003
Dye-transfer print
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

Later came hand-held video work and new photographic series made from Memphis, through the Mississippi Delta, to New Orleans and around the world. By grouping the still images by series and by presenting the video selections on multiple small screens in one open-walled gallery, the Whitney has encapsulated what makes Eggleston so consequential. The result is one of the museum's best exhibitions in years and perhaps its strongest photographic retrospective since its 1988 Robert Mapplethorpe show.


William Eggleston: Near Greenwood, Mississippi
American, Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973
12 3/8 x 18 3/8 in.
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

That is good news for the Whitney, which, because of its limited mandate - American art since 1900 - has a smaller claim to mine than most competing institutions. It relies on its important biennial review of recent American works, and every few years, it brings out its strong right arm - its Edward Hopper collection - and the crowds duly appear. A show like the Eggleston retrospective reminds us that the museum has a distinctive curatorial vision that compels attention and respect.


William Eggleston: Untitled (Morton, Mississippi), c. 1972
Dye-transfer print, 25 x 18 3/4 inches
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

The museum's display adheres to the orthodoxy I've just summarized, but as someone who was living and photographing in the South at the time that Eggleston was doing his seminal early work, I need to add commentary: Decisive-moment photography, like all architecture and some sculpture, is site specific. Good photographs are made where good photographs happen, and they don't happen equally in all places. Many of the best photographs have been made in New York and Paris because, in large part, people in those cities are engaged, focused and not afraid to show on their faces and in their body language exactly what is on their minds (which, famously in both cases, is often unprintable). Consider, in point of contrast, the lesser output from cities where a reserved demeanor is prized, such as London and Tokyo (the latter of which has produced no masterworks that I can immediately recall, despite being the world capital of cameras).


William Eggleston: Troubled Waters
115/8 x 17¼in
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

One Eggleston image in the Whitney retrospective, dated 1974, shows a heavyset man dressed in brown, his white undershirt protruding where the buttons spread at his abdomen, his hooded eyes and puffy lips pointed straight at the camera. It is the face of a man ready either to shed a tear or steal your wallet. I remember such men from the South of that era, and the stacks of roadside signs climbing to the sky like the figures on a totem pole, and the one-story brick houses, the Confederate battle flag, the handguns, and the baby-blue sky and gristle-like earth, all shimmering but listless in the wet southern heat. To photograph them in black-and-white as if caught on Madison Avenue or Avenue Montaigne would be to lose them as subjects. Eggleston's method was daring and remains arresting, but its development was stoked by necessity: I'm confident he chose color because the subjects he came to know so well would have looked limp and dull in black-and-white.


William Eggleston: Saint Simon's Island, Georgia
Negative, 1978; Print, 1980
Dye-transfer print, 10 1/8 x 15 3/16 in.
Included in the 1978 artist's book,
Morals of Vision
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

The same is true for the casual, snapshot-influenced approach: subjects placed square in the center, with negative space given great tracts of the frame in which to roam. Compact and robust places such as New York and Paris demand precise and tight composition. You can see the world in a trek from Harlem to SoHo; from Montmarte to the Latin Quarter, Paris will show you every human emotion. In the open, drifting spaces of the American South, a precise, tight composition in the manner of Henri Cartier-Bresson would set expectations that Eggleston's subjects would strain to achieve. Conversely, those powerful and crisp colors of the dye transfer process never let you forget that you are seeing nothing a snapshooter could deliver. To look at a boy seated in a dim, green room in an Eggleston photograph is to look at your neighbor's watercolor of his son, but as reinterpreted by Matisse. Eggleston said it best, in a quotation reproduced at the entry to the exhibition: "I am at war with the obvious."


William Eggleston: Morton, Mississippi
American, Morton, Mississippi, 1971
11 7/8 x 17 3/4 in.
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

In Eggleston's world, a man in a T-shirt sits bolt upright in the back of a car, a Mississippi license place on the seat beside him; an institutional shower reflects back the photographer's flash from the rear, green-tiled wall; three Mississippi boys stand dull-eyed on a dark and barren street on Halloween. A dog, its legs bent, drinks from a watery hole in a Louisiana street; behind him stands a hulking Oldsmobile similar to the one I drove around Louisiana back then, and I saw that dog or its relatives too many times to count. These are lingering, languid scenes that resolve themselves into art only by a method that respects their boundaries. Eggleston's ability to understand that and to communicate it, along with his technical innovation and skill, are largely the reason that he became and remains so important.

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera : Photographs and Video, 1961 - 2008
Until 25 January 2009
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
Tel: (1) 212 570 36 33

Alan Behr is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, where he practices intellectual-property law. He has exhibited his own photography at Leica Gallery in New York, and last wrote on The Art of Barack Obama and Nica de Koenigswarter: A Woman with a Passion for Culturekiosque.com

BOOK TIP

Culturekiosque readers should note that the retrospective William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008 is accompanied by a catalogue. Published by The Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, the handsome volume features superb plates of the works on view at the Whitney as well as several curatorial essays that chart, assess and attempt to predict the evolution and significance of Eggleston's technical and aesthetic achievements in color photography. Moreover, the curators make a reasonable case for Eggleston as an unparalleled chronicler of the American South - despite his own ambivalence to the geographical setting of his childhood and his rejection in 1976 by much of the New York intelligentsia and its parochial art critics. Less obvious, however, are the authors' treatments of the existential blight or the ambiguities and uncertainties of relationships, underlying some of Eggleston's more disturbing and ironic images of suburban life in the small towns and plantations of the Mississippi River Delta. Still, for those with a love of the visual arts and the courage to look into Pandora's box, this photography book is essential and can be acquired without reservation.

Antoine du Rocher

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008
By Elisabeth Sussman, Thomas Weski, with contributions by
Tina Kukielski, Stanley Booth, Donna De Salvo
Hardcover: 320 pages
The Whitney Museum of American Art / Yale University Press (December 2008)
ISBN-10: 0300126212
ISBN-13: 978-0300126211
$65.00

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Title photo: William Eggleston: Untitled, 1965-68 and 1972-74,
from Los Alamos, 2003
Dye transfer print 17 3/4 x 12 (45.1 x 30.5)
Private collection
© Eggleston Artistic Trust



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