Point and Place: William Eggleston's Vibrant Spaces
Eggleston has mentioned that this picture was shot at a funeral--which isn't surprising but hardly seems to explain anything. More to the point is how locked into place these people are by the checkerboard alternation of white and black--white car, black suit, white face, black trousers, white jacket, black face--which stands out so forcefully against their gloomy russet surroundings. Eggleston neither turns the scene into abstraction for its own sake nor uses it as the occasion for a sanctimonious comment on race relations--saying that our differences are transcended in the face of death, for instance, or on the contrary that our differences stubbornly maintain themselves even in the face of death, both of which would be jejune. Any clue that this is a cemetery, or any detail that would tend to make the image into a memento mori, is out of the picture anyway. Part of the power of an image like Sumner, Mississippi comes from Eggleston's refusal to editorialize or to simplify. The viewer's attention is forcefully drawn to its formal structure, but there's no leaving it at that; likewise, though we are not invited to moralize about the social condition of the people who inhabit this place, not for a moment are we allowed to stop thinking about it. The image draws these two aspects into a knot that only tightens as we try to wriggle out of it.
Even when Eggleston does seem to be editorializing, he probably isn't. In this sense, knowing something about the man who made the pictures is most valuable for what it tells you about how not to interpret them. Consider a picture from around 1983-86 of a little boy poring over a gun magazine, surrounded by a beatific light that comes near to forming a halo around his head. The irony of this angelic child being corrupted by America's gun culture is patent--until one sees the title, Winston, and realizes that this is the photographer's son; in which case the magazine could well be Eggleston's too, and so one's reflexive sense of irony has to evaporate, leaving one with an image that is far more disquieting than it would otherwise have been.
Bearing in mind Szarkowski's perception of the importance of place in Eggleston's work, it's probably natural to think of him as essentially a photographer of landscapes and interiors, for whom the human figure is secondary. And he does not discourage this notion. "Generally, to me, people, human beings, are not terrifically interesting to look at in photographs," Eggleston once told me. "It's what they do that's more interesting." But that statement is partly belied by what's on view at the Whitney. Many of his strongest images, especially early on, are of people, and what's interesting is how they're not doing anything. Arguably, it's through this approach that he swerves away from his great precursor, Cartier-Bresson. For the Frenchman, shooting pictures at an oblique angle to the depicted scene was a way of creating strong diagonals that give his images their dynamism, and this compositional dynamism expresses what the people in the picture are doing. Eggleston's diagonals--the crossed bars of his imaginary Confederate banner--tend to fix his people in place, evoking an enormous and vibrant space but one in which they seem at little or no liberty to move around. They are pinned down by history, geography, class, race, circumstance--and we can see their discomfort about that.
After the mid-1970s, people start to become scarcer in Eggleston's images. Everything else that speaks of their presence and their passing becomes Eggleston's focus--their houses, fields, cars, roads, stores, coffee shops. What brought on this change? It's curious that at the end of the '60s and in the early '70s, when Eggleston took many of his most famous images, he did not yet know how to realize them. The prints he derived from color negative film dissatisfied him, lacking color density and nuance. In color slide film he discovered a saturation he thought he could work with, but he couldn't print the results. In 1974 he began using the dye-transfer printing process, typically used only for high-end commercial work, which allowed him to exercise an extraordinary degree of control over color. "By the time you get into all those dyes," Eggleston has said, "it doesn't look at all like the scene, which in some cases is what you want." It might be said that all the color pictures made by Eggleston until 1974 were made, unknowingly, for a process he didn't yet know he could use--like an eighteenth-century composer writing for the harpsichord music that might have been better realized on the piano. But having discovered the process and used it to find the hidden depths in his existing imagery, he let the medium direct him to change his focus; from the mid-'70s on, Eggleston exhibits a new absorption in the surfaces of things. A kind of Pop sensibility enters his work, for instance in the visual glut of hyped-up acidic color in an untitled still life, circa 1983-86, of an outdoor lunch setting with a roast chicken, corn on the cob and all the trimmings set out on a checkered tablecloth. Finally, in many of his images from the past decade, it is neither person nor place nor thing but rather the effigy of a human presence that fascinates him--an eerily synthetic-looking statue of the Virgin Mary, for instance, in Untitled (Orange County), circa 1999-2001, or the TV image of a man as reflected by night in what is presumably a hotel window in Untitled (Kyoto), 2001. Eggleston's work of the past three decades is as good as that of anyone alive, with the sole exception of the man who made the breakthrough work of the late 1960s to the mid-'70s that has seared itself into the mind of anyone who's ever seen Eggleston's Guide.
And that includes the images without people. Just try forgetting Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973--which everyone calls "The Red Ceiling." There hasn't been a surface that red in art since Matisse's The Red Studio, but if anything, the Eggleston is even redder. (Eggleston disproves Matisse's idea that "the quantity of color was its quality"--that to increase the surface area covered by a given color is to increase its intensity; the peculiar sense of concentration and density conveyed by Eggleston's red could not have been extended to the scale of Matisse's painting, or of the similarly scaled photographs that some photographers have been producing in recent years.) This is another Confederate flag composition, yet at the center is not a person but a bare light bulb hanging from a garishly painted ceiling; all the more piercing in its misery. This is a transfixing, beautiful picture of a hideous place. Who could exist in such a room? A clue is supplied by the top of a poster that can be glimpsed at the bottom right corner: it seems to show a correlation between astrological signs and certain sexual positions. So this might be a brothel. Someone might have spent many a dreary working hour staring at that ceiling, and maybe no one else ever gave it a glance until this photographer showed up. As usual with Eggleston, the fact, or possible fact, remains unembroidered with commentary. As with all his best pictures, this one puts the viewer in the middle of a life one might never have chosen for oneself, which could remind us that the person whose life it is might not have chosen it either.