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Point and Place: William Eggleston's Vibrant Spaces | The Nation

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Point and Place: William Eggleston's Vibrant Spaces

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Eggleston Artistic Trust/Cheim & Read, NYCUntitled, circa 1975

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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After having spent some hours at the Whitney Museum among William Eggleston's photographs, I couldn't stop my mind's eye from framing each passing place as an interesting photograph. I was in a taxi on the way to the airport and thinking hard about walking straight to the duty-free shop to see what they had in the way of cameras. But in the end, I knew better than to waste my money. I've been around images long enough to know what illusions they can work. And having memorized Henry James's caveat to writers--"The art of representation bristles with questions the very terms of which are difficult to apply and to appreciate"--I recollected in time that it applies to the art of the camera as well as to that of the pen. Most people realize there's more to, say, making music than just wanting to; you need some technique to mediate your desire. Writing seems a bit more available because, after all, language is everybody's tool kit. But photography is even more seductive. Hasn't the technique been built into the technology? Just point and shoot.

Calling his grand and gorgeous retrospective at the Whitney "Democratic Camera," Eggleston might seem to imply that anybody can do it. (The exhibition can be seen there through January 25; it then travels to the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where it will run from February 20 to May 17.) Well, maybe anybody could have made these pictures--anybody, as long as he was born in 1939; raised in Mississippi (in the town where Emmett Till was later lynched) as the asthmatic scion of a wealthy old planter family; developed an early affinity for art and music, and for the gear associated with it (cameras, audio equipment); passed through Ole Miss and various other Southern universities without bothering to take a degree; discovered Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment at just the decisive moment when he was still young enough for the book to have the deepest and most unprepared impact yet mature enough to be able to start reacting constructively to it; set up house in Memphis (where he was born); and developed his art in relative isolation yet remained savvy enough to know that when the work was ready, the only thing to do was to take a suitcase full of prints to New York to lay before MoMA's legendary photography curator John Szarkowski. Anybody could have made them, that is, who was William Eggleston.

Eggleston not only makes it look easy, as natural as opening your eyes, but seems to have come upon his art all at once. That's not to say he never made any apprentice work, only that it had almost nothing in it of what we'd now recognize as the Eggleston eye, and that while there was a transitional period between apprenticeship and fully achieved mastery, it happened in the blink of an eye. "When we met, over forty years ago," writes music journalist Stanley Booth in the Whitney's exhibition catalog, "Eggleston...was already, in his early twenties, reputed to be a 'serious' photographer." Maybe that was the problem: Eggleston's black-and-white photographs of the '60s don't wear their seriousness lightly enough. Some of them are closer to a documentary style than his later pictures were. In others one does see him reaching out for the more oblique, more mercurial sense of what a picture can be, of densely encapsulating lived experience, that would soon be his. His gaze is drawn to the same kinds of places and people one will glimpse in his mature work, but we don't experience them as concretely as in the images he would soon begin making in color. There are intimations of that mature oblique texture in an untitled image taken in 1968 in Memphis: on an eerily empty suburban street, a man stands at the side of the road, one hand bent at an odd angle as if he were pushing off from a nonexistent pole that he'd been holding on to the night before--the gesture points against the direction in which he appears to be fitfully moving. He casts a long shadow on the lawn behind him--as the photographer does across the road that separates them. It's as if the cold morning light of de Chirico's "metaphysical" piazzas had been translated to the New South.

One sees in Eggleston's early color photographs, from around 1969 on, several such scenes of isolated individuals in wide, inhospitable landscapes--the yawning sense of existential disconnection built on an elementary tension between the figure's verticality and the picture's horizontality. Speaking of his childhood, Eggleston recently said, "I never had the feeling that I didn't fit in. But probably I didn't." That's the kind of person these images seem to be about: someone who is detached from his or her environment without realizing it. Szarkowski wrote in his introduction to William Eggleston's Guide, the book that accompanied the exhibition he curated at MoMA in 1976, "The pictures reproduced here are about the photographer's home, about his place, in both important meanings of that word. One might say about his identity." Eggleston has always denied being a "Southern artist" and rightly points out that he travels widely and has made many fine images elsewhere. His is certainly not the "Gothic" South of Faulkner and McCullers, whose photographic offspring might be Ralph Eugene Meatyard. But he's as Southern in his rejection of identification with the South as he is in his evident fascination with its landscape and the people who have made and marred it: they are all here, black and white, rich and poor, not as exemplars of any societal or political problem but all affected by a similar unease with their place. Eggleston once said that the compositional basis for his pictures is the Confederate flag. It's a shocking statement, or it would be if it wasn't more likely that he was making a joke at Szarkowski's expense, the latter having relayed to him MoMA director Alfred Barr Jr.'s observation that Eggleston's images typically "radiate from a central, circular core." But it encapsulates, in any case, the tension between Eggleston's evident formalism and the intense if inexplicit psychosocial unease his imagery embodies.

Eggleston is the opposite of a documentarian because he uproots his images from their anecdotal context. What is left after this removal? A structure of feeling. A good example of this is in a picture called Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background, circa 1970. In terms of color, it's one of the most restrained photographs Eggleston has ever made: pure russet autumn. The ground, here in Eggleston's hometown, is covered with dry leaves bedded on their own shadows. Although the camera's viewpoint is downward-looking, so that there is no horizon and therefore the sky is unseen, the day must be overcast; the sallow light seems to be draining right out of the scene. In the background, on the other side of the water, are some houses, but their distance emphasizes the feeling of isolation. In the central foreground stands a middle-aged white man in a black suit, hands in his pockets. There's a grim, somewhat lost look on his face. To the right, just behind him, stands a black man wearing a white jacket and black trousers. His hands are in his pockets too, but his posture is a little more relaxed than that of his white counterpart; and his facial expression is clearer, his thoughts seemingly turned less exclusively inward. To the left is a white car with the driver's-side door open. Through the glare on the windshield one can just make out its driver's head and a hand on the steering wheel. There's no road to be seen, so one might wonder what a car is doing here.

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