It’s pretty hard nowadays to recapture the sense of outrage generated by photographer William Eggleston’s show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Critics at the time turned up their noses at Eggleston’s super-saturated colors, his unglamorous subjects plucked from the streets of Memphis, Tenn., and his oddball compositions—which he claimed were arranged to mimic the Confederate flag. Visitors to the current Eggleston retrospective, Democratic Camera: Photographs and Video, 1961–2008, aren’t likely to be riled the same way. The current show, organized last year by the Whitney Museum of American Art, will likely appear to contemporary eyes as simply venerable 1970s street photography: sometimes gaudy, sometimes ecstatic, but basically traditional—hardly the stuff of scandal.
In Eggleston’s time, some dismissed his work as being akin to cranking out snapshots of whatever came to hand. In 1976, conservative New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer wrote: “He likes trucks, cars, tricycles, unremarkable suburban houses and dreary landscapes too, and he especially likes his family and friends, who may, for all I know, be wonderful people, who appear in these pictures as dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest.”
In the art world of today, Eggleston is lauded for his eye and for his knack for capturing off-kilter images, if not the importance of his larger artistic vision. Show curators Elizabeth Sussman and Thomas Weski, from the Whitney Museum and the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, respectively, seem to accept Eggleston’s own claims about his indifference to his subject matter—his stated belief that he looks at the world as if “nothing was more important or less important.” Even the show’s title, Democratic Camera, suggests Eggleston is primarily a formalist, thinking about his relationship to the camera, color, and composition above all else.
Eggleston’s best photos, however, won’t sustain this reading. Eggleston was essentially a regionalist; his photographs are an extended riff on the artist’s uneasy relationship with the ruined South and his own status as a moneyed Southern dandy on the skids. Eggleston was born in 1939 and raised on the family cotton farm in Tallahatchie County, Miss. He attended a series of universities without ever receiving a degree; since those days, he has always worn a suit and never owned a pair of bluejeans. Eggleston early on developed a sweet tooth for certain makes of expensive European cars—Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls Royce—which he incongruously drove around the Mississippi Delta throughout the 1970s in pursuit of women, drink, and drugs.
He was initially inspired by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his notion of the decisive moment, a point at which the actions in front of the camera are distilled into one essential image, dependent largely on chance and instinct. Eggleston lamented that he couldn’t see anything he actually liked or wanted to photograph in Tennessee—certainly not equaling what Cartier-Bresson found in Paris. He began to document his surroundings, anyway: commercial detritus, strange children wandering on empty roads, and bored bohemians slowly numbing themselves in living rooms and dive bars. Those subjects haunt the best of the 150 photos on view here, drawn from the past 50 years of his career.
Eggleston’s preferred human subjects are often curious characters, shown in a way calculated to unsettle—at times vaguely recalling some of the freakish people haunting the images of Eggleston’s contemporary, Diane Arbus. Morton, Mississippi (c. 1969–70), for example, shows a silver-haired gentleman slouching on the edge of a bed in a modest country bedroom. One of his hands is tucked between his legs; the other gingerly holds a revolver and touches the gun’s barrel to a folded-up quilt to his right. The man’s mouth is agape, and his eyes appear glazed—as if he is partly paralyzed, on the verge of some terrible decision, or simply remembering what he once did with this weapon, years before. Another image, Greenwood, Mississippi (1972), shows a dimly lit interior, the walls of which are plastered with graffiti. A naked man stands in the center of the room, scratching at his thinning hair; he stares intently at a cigarette that appears to have burned down almost to the filter on the dresser in the foreground. A giant tank—oxygen? nitrous oxide?—looms behind him.
Empty rooms in Eggleston images can be just as off-putting as people—as with the naked light bulb and glossy, impossibly saturated blood red ceiling in another image titled Greenwood, Mississippi (1973). It’s worth remembering that up to the moment Eggleston began working with color, fine art photographs were almost universally black and white, often created with large-format cameras. He didn’t develop his own photographs; instead, he sent them to a laboratory to be printed with the dye transfer process—a method of printing associated with advertising or commercial work, but certainly not with fine art. And Eggleston kept himself unencumbered by a tripod, preferring to meander around with a 35mm camera in order to encounter his decisive moments by chance.
Yet as much as chance plays a role in Eggleston’s work, there is little that isn’t deliberate in his distinctive manner of composing.
In Memphis (1969–71), Eggleston shows a woman sitting uneasily on a large curbstone. Her face sits in the exact center of the image. The decision to position her in this way produces strange repercussions: More than half of the photo is backdrop and sky; the woman, seated and staring directly at the viewer, is pushed into the bottom of the image, and one of her feet is cropped. The other appears to rest gingerly on the bottom edge of the photo. Her left hand is a blur; it appears that she raised her arm, perhaps in surprise, as she realized she was being photographed. A concrete post to the right of this woman is tightly wrapped with many feet of heavy chain—strangely echoing the bracelet on her left arm, and offering a cheeky comment on her guarded, slightly impatient expression.
These arbitrary-looking crops and unusual use of space are certainly by design, whether they were orchestrated beforehand or simply selected from an array of options later. Such affectations make the moments Eggleston captures seem all the more alien, snatched from the stream of time and made unfamiliar to us. This was Eggleston’s mode: not framing timeless, balanced moments as Ansel Adams or Edward Weston might do but emphasizing the provisional, cockeyed quality of daily life as it unfolded around him.
Anyone curious about Eggleston’s relationship to his subjects need look no further than Stranded in Canton (1974), the long, essentially unedited experimental video that shows Eggleston meandering through his milieu, bobbing and weaving with the lens. Scenes from this recently re-edited video are shown here on four small monitors; the footage is all black and white, and much of it has been filmed with an infrared lens—giving the people Eggleston captures the appearance of having huge, dark pupils and bathing everything around him in soft, glowing light.
Footage for Stranded in Canton was gathered both in New Orleans and Memphis; in one scene, Eggleston wanders around the living room of veterinarian J.L. as he attempts to tell a story involving Elvis; The story is continually interrupted by loud objections posed by a woman in the room (presumably J.L.’s wife), and punctuated by Eggleston’s odd compulsion to train his lens on people’s belt buckles and jewelry, zooming in, zooming out, and seeming to move in a continuous, slow circle.
Eggleston is clearly a strange voyeur, loping through groupings of revelers who vie for the attention of his lens. “He’d shoot with some kind of night vision lens often until the bitter end, then just fall over unconscious on the floor,” said Memphis musician Bill Dickinson in a 2004 interview, describing the making of the movie. “He wasn’t just at the party, he was the party.”
Despite the mixed 1970s reaction to Eggleston’s work, he has become an art star in the last couple of decades—hence the show’s including works up to 2008. He is now typically introduced as the grandfather of color photography, although he was certainly not the first fine artist to work in color, just the most highly visible. Eggleston still staggers among us, but in recent years, he has wandered far from the Delta and has received and accepted invitations to take photographs in Kyoto, Berlin, and on the sets of various movies made by a generation of Eggleston devotees.
Eggleston’s Kyoto photos, dating from 2001, rely on superimposed images created by reflections, figures glimpsed through semi-opaque glass, and unusual, brilliantly colored flowers and fish. Some of these pieces are reminiscent of vintage Eggleston but are at best only very competent formal exercises. Without Memphis and the texture of life in that part of the world, Eggleston’s work loses its bite, its verve.
Whatever trepidation Eggleston has felt about Memphis, he has made a career for himself by turning all of the landscape around him into what now often is referred to as “Eggleston country.” Yet Eggleston is a regionalist with a difference, almost postmodern in his adoption of a deliberately inelegant vocabulary for composing and framing, all within an equally artificial, heightened world of color. His decisions as a photographer speak generally to the problems of making discontinuous experiences into static images. More specifically, they speak to the problems of being in a cosmopolitan, bohemian, debauched state of mind in a rural setting on the outskirts of everywhere else you think you’d rather be.