William Eggleston： Four Color
In his poem “Pastoral,” William Carlos Williams describes, with plain language, a walk through a rural backstreet, along which he observes the dilapidated homes of poor folk: yards littered with chicken wire and old furniture, fences and outhouses “smeared a bluish green.” Williams concludes his poem with a simple reflection: “No one will believe this of vast import to the nation.”
When William Eggleston debuted a series of color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, one critic (echoing a general consensus) declared it “perfectly banal, perfectly boring.” The art community had accepted photography as serious, capital “A” Art, but with a few conditions. Fed on Capa, Cartier-Bresson, and Frank, critics felt that Serious Photography needed to be socially and politically engaged, or have the transcendent grandeur of Ansel Adams, and—above all—be in black and white. The work they discovered at MoMA in May of 1976 checked none of these boxes: images of the utterly commonplace, composed in a seemingly haphazard way, and all printed in vibrant, garish color. No wonder they found Eggleston so confounding.
Black and white was the Latin of photography. By convention, it supplied images automatically with an aura, an intensity, and a sense of high-meaning. Black and white clearly delineated—and protected—Serious Photography from the work of unrefined hobbyists or gaudy advertisement, in which color was prevalent. Color was vulgate, the vernacular. Eggleston’s solo show was not the first time MoMA had exhibited color photography, and Eggleston was hardly the first major photographer to utilize it. His 1976 show was, however, the boldest argument that had been made for the inclusion of color in Serious Photography. This is perhaps why the work disappointed many of its initial viewers. If one’s intention was to posit color photography as artistically valid, why choose subject matter that was so...ordinary? What is so important about a car tire, a corner store, a child’s tricycle? What is he doing that the average person with a camera can’t do?
Eggleston offers no instantly gratifying answer. In fact, whenever he can, Eggleston actively disposes of any extraneous reference point, any ideological crutch, any clunky expository framework that would comfortably account for what is—simply, plainly—the act of creating images. John Szarkowski, the MoMA Director of Photography who was among Eggleston’s earliest champions, wrote in the introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide: “one might say a photograph’s subject is not its starting point but its destination.” The images that Eggleston presents us intrinsically carry their own urgency of purpose within the bluntness of their existence. If Eggleston’s subjects are supposedly trivial, it is to remind us that everyday that we are surrounded by such objects, each with an absolute presence that defies definition. It is our fault if we believe they aren’t of “vast import to the nation.”
The movement of Eggleston’s images should be familiar to anyone who has read modern poetry, such as that of William Carlos Williams. It is a movement toward common speech, the effort to discover within the idiom and rhythm of local accent a universal poetic. This is an organic art rooted in a specific place, which feeds and informs that art’s growth even as it is transcended. For Eggleston, this place is the South, specifically the Mississippi Delta where he grew up and continues to work to this day. His work is located at the intersection of the unique cultural thumbprint of Mississippi and the larger homogeneity of American Suburbia and corporate branding (one image shows a billboard for Coca-Cola above a hand painted sign that reads “Peaches!”). Many have described Eggleston’s images as “snapshots,” but this doesn’t seem appropriate. The work is much too deliberate. It seems more accurate to say that Eggleston uses the idiom of the snapshot, and discovers the poetry within it. This is an idiom made up of odd angles, obscured figures, found scenes, varying degrees of focus, not-quite-perfect framing. From these elements, he composes images of considerable aesthetic weight. These rough edges do more than simply add character; they are central to the effect. As much as what is there, the images are made up of what is half-there or else entirely invisible.
Take “The Red Ceiling”: a seemingly careless shot of a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling of a monochrome room. The blaring, hallucinatory red, the color-scheme and the pattern of wires (which seem to recall a Nazi flag), the suggestive figures half-obscured in the bottom-right corner, the frame ever-so-slightly askew; all of these elements build an image that is as visceral and disorienting as a fever dream. This image in particular is evidence of Eggleston’s frequently cited influence on filmmaker David Lynch.
Even today, as color has taken over photography, Eggleston’s pictures remain as mystifying as they were 40 years ago. One struggles to account for it. His contribution to photography extends beyond justifying the use of color. More importantly, he gave photography a singular point-of-view, one that revealed the realm of the local and everyday to be limitless in its dimensions. Eggleston was able to create some of photography’s most unique images simply because he thought to look at what was right in front of him. To look at the stuff that is so common and familiar that most of us drift through it thoughtlessly, and thus spend half of our lives in a state of unconsciousness. Eggleston’s images release us from that state. They are a call to consciousness. A reminder to, in the words of Robert Frank, “keep your eyes open.”
William Eggleston Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 21 July - 23 October www.npg.org.uk