Eggleston Artistic Trust/Cheim & Read, NYC
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.