Grace Elizabeth Hale reviews At War with the Obvious, an exhibition of William Eggleston's photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York, February 26–July 28, 2013.
|Untitled (Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi), 1970, printed 1999. Photograph and dye-transfer print by William Eggleston. From At War with the Obvious, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession #2012.286. © Eggleston Artistic Trust.|
In a William Eggleston photograph currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a young African American woman wearing a lime green dress and a shower cap walks down a road. She is centered and small. The landscape around her—the flat farmland, the big sky, the tin-roofed shack, and the two-lane highway—marks the place as the Mississippi Delta. It is the kind of road local people drive to reach Memphis or Clarksdale or walk to reach churches and stores and the gravel lanes that lead home. It is the kind of place where civil rights activists fear meeting sheriffs and folklorists dream of finding blind blues musicians. Farm Security photographers worked here two decades earlier, shooting pictures of southern rural poverty, and in 1970, the want remains. This is not a very promising place to make a life, no matter what the woman is carrying in her bag. It is also, after Walker Evans, not a very promising place to try to make an original photograph.
The color—the lime green dress—is the key. The dress makes this William Eggleston photograph new. Against the dress, the green grass and corn stalks fade. The light in the overcast sky takes on a kind of lurid hue. The dress, not the landscape, pops out. It is lush, overripe, frame bursting. In Untitled (Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi) and other photographs taken in the 1970s, Eggleston begins constructing a new way of looking at the US South, a full color, sideways vision.
|Wagonload of cotton coming out of the field in the evening. Mileston Plantation, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi, 1939. Photographic negative by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives Collection, LC-USF34-052257-D.|
In the last decade, Eggleston's sensibility has become wildly popular, but when he created his style, it stood in direct contrast to the way twentieth-century photographers had taught people to see the South. In the work of Farm Security Administration photographers, widely circulated in the 1930s and 1940s and rediscovered in the 1960s, the South was clear and crisp, black and white, geographically open before the camera and yet lost in time, its signs of modernity knocking incongruously against worn machines, buildings, and people. Walker Evans, in particular, achieved new levels of fame as the Museum of Modern Art reissued his book American Photographs (1939) in 1962 and mounted a retrospective and a published catalog in 1971. Eggleston worked through and against this legacy, bringing pop-art color and drama, a bohemian love for the margins, and Cartier-Bresson's compositional techniques to contemporary versions of Evans's subject matter.
The Met's show is part of a more than decade-long celebration of this artist. Born in Memphis in 1939, Eggleston grew up there and in Sumner, Mississippi, at his grandparent's home. While Eggleston has worked across the United States including Califorinia, New York, and New Jersey, as well as in Kenya, Egypt, China, England, Italy, and Russia, his photographs of Memphis, its suburbs, and the Delta are his most famous. He also worked extensively in Louisiana. To be fair, Eggleston has never really been neglected by the art world. Early in his career, before his first major solo show, he won Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. His friends included artist William Christenberry and curator Walter Hopps. In the late 1960s, he met the influential MOMA curator John Szarkowski and showed him what Szarkowski later described as a suitcase full of drugstore photos.1"William Eggleston," Wikipedia, accessed June 26, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Eggleston. Szarkowski was impressed enough to give Eggleston his first major solo show, the now famous 1976 MOMA exhibition, and to publish the accompanying book, William Eggleston's Guide. That show, remembered wrongly as MOMA's first exhibition of a single photographer's color work, was panned by art critic Hilton Kramer, as "Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly."2Hilton Kramer, "Art: Focus on Photo Shows," The New York Times, May 28, 1976, 62. The New York Times called it "the most hated show of the year."3Gene Thompson, "Photography Found a Home in Art Galleries," The New York Times, December 26, 1976, 29. The criticism gave Eggleston a kind of notoriety. Two years later, he won another NEA award. In the eighties and nineties, film directors and musicians such as John Huston, David Byrne, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant befriended him and invited him to take photographs on their movie sets.
More recently, Eggleston has had major exhibitions at galleries and museums around the world including the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 2001 and the Hayward Gallery in London in 2002. In 2004, Eggleston received a Getty Images Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony at the International Center for Photography in New York. The Whitney staged a major retrospective, William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961–2008, that traveled to the Cocoran Gallery of Art in Washington in 2009. That year, Steidl, a German publisher known for its meticulously printed art photography books, began publishing Eggleston's images, including the multiple volume works Chrome (2011) and Los Alamos Revisited (2012). This year, the Tate Modern in London opened a permanent exhibition of his photographs. Currently, his early color photographs are on display in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a show entitled At War with the Obvious.
This show surveys Eggleston's early color photographs from the 1970s, including all the images in his first publication, a portfolio entitled 14 Pictures, fifteen images from William Eggleston's Guide, and seven additional images taken between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. All are dye-transfer prints, their colors thick and rich and dazzling. Eggleston had started experimenting with color transparency film and then color negative film in the mid-1960s. Yet until Eggleston discovered the dye-transfer process, he had no way to make a good, archival quality print in color. On a trip to Chicago in the early 1970s, Eggleston discovered the process while reading a photography lab price list. Dye transfer was the most expensive service offered. "I went straight up there to look," he remembered years later, "and everything I saw was commercial work, like pictures of cigarette packs or perfume bottles, but the color saturation and the quality of the ink was overwhelming. I couldn't wait to see what a plain Eggleston picture would look like with the same process."4The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, directed by Reiner Holzeimer and Jack Cocker (BBC, 2009).
Eggleston, from an affluent family, never had to work to earn a living and had the resources to pay for dye transfers. When Eggleston stressed his "democratic method" of working, he did not mean a printing method for the masses. He meant instead a way of looking at things in the world. In a documentary for BBC television, he remembered "I had been working down in Oxford or Holly Springs, [Mississippi,] one day, and that night, at the bar, somebody asked me what I'd been photographing and I told him, 'Oh just dirt by the side of the road. I've been photographing democratically.'"5Holzeimer and Cocker, The Colourful Mr. Eggleston. A similar quote graces the wall of the Met's exhibition: "I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important."
|Untitled, 1971. Photograph and dye-transfer print by William Eggleston. From At War with the Obvious, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession #2012.300. © Eggleston Artistic Trust.|
Critics have seized these comments to describe Eggleston's vision. Michael Glover, who recently named Eggleston "the world's greatest photographer," has argued, "He is besotted by the imaginative possibilities of the ordinary. He wants us to rinse our eyes until we see, without prejudice, the exquisite poignancy of the seeming banalities of the everyday."6Glover, Michael. "Genius in Colour: Why William Eggleston is the World's Greatest Photographer," The Independent, April 22, 2013, accessed June 26, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/genius-in-colour-why-william-eggleston-is-the-worlds-greatest-photographer-8577202.html What Glover missed, however, was that this attention to the everyday and the ordinary was not new. Evans had pioneered this kind of content—presenting the contingent, the ephemeral and the fleeting as art—in the photographs he took three decades earlier. Eggleston remembered first seeing Evans's American Photographs as well as Henri Cartier-Bresson's book The Decisive Moment in 1959, two years after he got his first camera. In the images now on exhibit at the Met, Eggleston uses a small, quick camera and color to build a vision that evokes as well as challenges Evans's aesthetic.
Shot straight-on from eye-level in black and white, Eggleston's Untitled, 1971, an image of a Coca-Cola and peaches sign, could be a Walker Evans image. The color—the blue sky cut by power lines, the faded Coca-Cola logo, the orange letters spelling "PEACHES!" begin to suggest something new, but it is the angle of the shot—looking up from the lip of a rusty corrugated tin roof at the sign—and the depth of field that complete the transformation. Eggleston manages to make this typical Evans subject his own by erasing flatness and adding color. Even more like an Evans is a straight, eye-level 1974 shot, also untitled, of a dull yellow shack with an orange closed sign in what must have been a take-out window. The rusty air conditioner, covered by a little awning that echoes the bigger awning over the door and window, is just the kind of detail Evans would have picked up on to juxtapose the old and the new if window air conditioners had been invented during his classic period.
|Washstand in the dog run and kitchen of Floyd Burroughs' cabin. Hale County, Alabama, 1935 or 1936. Photographic negative by Walker Evans. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives Collection, LC-USF342-008133.||Untitled (near Jackson, Mississippi), ca. 1970, printed 2002. Photograph and dye-transfer print by William Eggleston. From At War with the Obvious, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession #2012.295 © Eggleston Artistic Trust.|
Like a 1936 Evans photograph from Hale County, Alabama, a 1970 photograph, Untitled (Near Jackson, Mississippi), depicts an intimate interior space where a piece of clothing hangs on a wall over a bed. Clothes and the intimate spaces inside homes where people live and sleep and dress are all Evans's subjects, but the materials the objects in Eggleston's image are made of—concrete walls and synthetic cloth—push the viewer into the 1970s. Color helps, and the red fleece lining of the coat's hood pops out against the coat's silvery white lining and navy exterior and the dirty, grey wall. Yet unlike Evans and photographer and filmmaker John Cohen, who worked in Appalachia in the 1960s, Eggleston shoots at an angle, incorporating corners—walls hitting the ceiling at the top and the corner of a baby bed at the bottom—into the right edge of his image. The corners of the photographic frame amplify the corners of the subject here, producing a sense of interior space and depth. In these images, Eggleston reworks subjects Evans shot from the front by shooting instead at odd angles and adding color and dimensionality.
|Untitled, 1974. Photograph and dye-transfer print by William Eggleston. From At War with the Obvious, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession #2012.280.12. © Eggleston Artistic Trust.|
During the depression era, Farm Security Administration photographers made many images of vehicles, lines of parked automobiles, trucks with their beds full of people, and mules pulling carts through 1930s towns. Eggleston both evokes this imagery and transforms it. In a 1974 photograph, Untitled, he photographs a farm truck—old in the present of the photograph but not so old that it could have been around in the 1930s—sitting alone in a field. Again, he works an angle. The rusty red and white truck fills the horizon line but its right front corner, the place where the bumper and headlights meet the side, pushes out at the viewer, the inverse of the corners that dominate his interior scenes. Working from below eye-level like late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century industrial photographers, Eggleston makes the truck—like train engines and turbines in industrial images—appear monumental. He uses the same effect to photograph a tricycle in Untitled (Memphis), 1970, the image that appears on the front cover of William Eggleston's Guide. The contrast between the monumental machine aesthetic and the subject matter—a child's toy in suburbia—is even stronger here.
In other photographs on display at the Met, Eggleston moves in close and transforms fragments of his South into pop art. In the early 1970s, his work circulated in an art world saturated with color, drama, and the aesthetics of advertising. Eggleston met Viva, a Warhol superstar, at his 1976 MOMA exhibition. After they began an affair, Eggleston visited the Factory and met Warhol. Some of his photographs, however, were already infused with a pop-art feel. The green bathroom—a tub and the tiles around it in Untitled (Memphis), circa 1972—is shot straight ahead from the front, but the three sides of the rectangle where the tub resides, the light on the back tiled and plastered wall, and the arched ceiling create a sense of depth and drama, a contradictory space of shiny chrome and moldy grout. In Untitled (Memphis), circa 1970, the blue-black interior of an oven, its depth cut by two chrome racks and a spot of light center right on its floor, creates a similar effect. In Untitled, 1974, red, yellow, and blue plastic animal figures pose on the hood of a blackish car at night, an artificial light bouncing off the scratched and shiny surface behind them like a spotlight on their act.
|Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi), 1980. Photograph and dye-transfer print by William Eggleston. From At War with the Obvious, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession #2012.301. © Eggleston Artistic Trust.|
Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi), 1980, perhaps Eggleston's most famous image, belongs with this set. The color is key—the ceiling and walls of this room have been painted a deep, blood red. Once again, Eggleston uses the corner—the intersection of two walls and the ceiling in the low center of the shot to create a sense of space. Just above the corner, slightly left of center in the image, is a light fixture with a bare bulb and an on/off chain. Three white extension cords plugged into the fixture and stapled to the ceiling lead out to the walls and sizzle against the ceiling color. Eggleston remembers shooting the image while lying in bed with friends talking—that they also had been doing other things is implied—and the bottom edge of a poster depicting the positions of the kama sutra in the photograph amplifies the sexual atmosphere. "I think red is a very difficult color to work with," he says in an interview for the BBC video. "I don't know why. It's as if red is at war with all the other colors."7Holzeimer and Cocker, The Colourful Mr. Eggleston.
In that video, Eggleston describes another red photograph on display at the Met, also Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi), 1970. A naked man stands in the center of the frame with one hand scratching his head and the other on his hip, his slightly sideways stance putting his balls and penis on full display. An unmade bed stretches across much of the left side of the frame. Behind him to the right is another Eggleston corner, revealing the room's depth. Red light saturates the scene. Black graffiti spells out "God" and "Tally Ho" and "Mona" on the walls as a lit cigarette lies untended on the edge of the dresser. The atmosphere is more debauched than menacing before Eggleston provides the BBC with a description. The man is his friend T. C., a dentist and a drug addict, who was later murdered in this house with an axe blow to the head.
|Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in background), 1971, printed 1999. Photograph and dye-transfer print by William Eggleston. From At War with the Obvious, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession #2012.283. © Eggleston Artistic Trust.|
Only one image here makes any reference to a subject that dominates much photography made in the South in the 1960s and 1970s: race relations. In Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in background), 1971, a white man wearing a dark suit and a black man wearing a white service jacket stand in the woods beside a car whose door is open. According to Eggleston, the photograph depicts his uncle—"married to my mother's sister"—and Jasper—"he was a household servant and he helped raise me." Though in relation to the front of the car, Jasper stands behind Eggleston's uncle, the photographer shoots at an angle that minimizes this statement of deference and places both men in the rough center of the image along a low horizontal line. Jasper and Eggleston's uncle hold their heads at the same angle and make the same facial expression. They both have their hands in their pockets as they lean back slightly on their heels with their toes pointed outward. According to Eggleston, "It's like they've been together for so long they've started [he starts to say something, breaks off, laughs, and then continues talking] standing the same way."8Ibid. In Eggleston's photograph, Jasper appears as an echo of his employer. The fusion of intimacy and inequality here would be at home in a daguerreotype of a young Confederate soldier and the young slave who accompanied him to war, and yet the clothes and the car drag the image into the 1970s present. Jarringly contradictory, the image suggests both continuity and change.
Eggleston made the photographs on display here in a particular historical movement: after mass activism, the passage of landmark civil rights laws, and the urban rebellions of the 1960s transformed the South and the nation. Officially, at law, the United States was a desegregated country. In this context, some whites (and not just southerners) took up Confederate symbols as signs of rebellion. As the southern rock of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd filled the soundscape, Eggleston could not resist playing this game. According to Szarkowsi, when Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then the director of MOMA, first saw slides of the Eggleston photographs being considered for the 1976 show, he observed that "the design of most of the pictures seemed to radiate from a central, circular core." Someone passed this along to Eggleston. According to Szarkowski, "after a barely perceptible hesitation," Eggleston replied "that this was true, since the pictures were based compositionally on the Confederate flag."9John Szarkowski, William Eggleston's Guide (Cambridge, MA: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976), 11. Eggleston, colorful in both his life and his art, pushed at the boundaries of artistic and social conventions.
Earlier in the twentieth century, Walker Evans created a black and white, crisp and flat aesthetic that also worked as an ideology. He represented the South "straight," stripped of artifice and even artfulness. Direct and frank and clear, he worked to strip himself and his emotions from his images. And on multiple levels, Evans's "documentary style" worked for a liberal government and its supporters, people with faith in the transparency of the photographic image and its ability to reveal backwardness and poverty. But it also worked for a mid-twentieth century art world, ready to break with the studied artifice of earlier art photography and the Romantic landscapes of Ansel Adams and others.
By the 1970s, Evans's photographs made with a large format camera seemed out of step with a post-civil rights movement South where even the contradictions lacked clarity. Against straightness and flatness, Eggleston worked the angles and added dimensionality and depth. Against crisp lines and black and white clarity, he offered bleeding colors. Against faith in the legibility of photographic representation, he presented private moments and intimate spaces, vignettes in stories lacking a script. Against images often devoid of emotional display—the evenhandedness of both liberal earnestness and art in the age of academic criticism—he offered eroticism, bodily pleasures, desire, and decadence.
Eggleston's South is not the folksy land beloved by music fans and folklorists for its "authentic" way of life and rustic charm, its old buildings and old sounds and old signs. It is not the civil rights South, full of earnest and moral activism. Here, threat lurks not under a Klan hood but inside a red room where a drug-addicted dentist lives his last days. A tricycle is monumental but also ominous, and a Confederate flag can work as a compositional device. Eggleston's South is a place where the horrors of history suggest no solution, no forward motion in anything as orderly as progress. The current Eggleston revival suggests that this South makes sense to contemporary art lovers (at least) in our own historical moment.
About the Author
Grace Elizabeth Hale is a professor of History and American Studies at the University of Virginia, where her research and teaching centers upon twentieth-century US cultural history, the US South, documentary studies, and sound studies. She is the author of A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle-Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (New York: Pantheon, 1998).
Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Decisive Moment. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.
Dugan, Ellen, ed. Picturing the South: 1860 to the Present: Photographers and Writers. Essays by William Baldwin and Charles Reagan Wilson. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1996.
Eggleston, William. Chromes. Göttingen: Steidl, 2011.
———. The Democratic Forest. Introduction by Eudora Welty. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
———. Guide. Essay by John Szarkowski. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976.
———. Los Alamos Revisted. Göttingen: Steidl, 2012.
Evans, Walker. American Photographs. Essay by Lincoln Kirstein. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1938.
Johnson, Ken. "The Sacred of the Material World: William Eggleston at Metropolitan Museum of Art." New York Times, May 2, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/arts/design/william-eggleston-at-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html.
At War With the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
|1.||"William Eggleston," Wikipedia, accessed June 26, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Eggleston.|
|2.||Hilton Kramer, "Art: Focus on Photo Shows," The New York Times, May 28, 1976, 62.|
|3.||Gene Thompson, "Photography Found a Home in Art Galleries," The New York Times, December 26, 1976, 29.|
|4.||The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, directed by Reiner Holzeimer and Jack Cocker (BBC, 2009).|
|5.||Holzeimer and Cocker, The Colourful Mr. Eggleston.|
|6.||Glover, Michael. "Genius in Colour: Why William Eggleston is the World's Greatest Photographer," The Independent, April 22, 2013, accessed June 26, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/genius-in-colour-why-william-eggleston-is-the-worlds-greatest-photographer-8577202.html|
|7.||Holzeimer and Cocker, The Colourful Mr. Eggleston.|
|9.||John Szarkowski, William Eggleston's Guide (Cambridge, MA: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976), 11.|