Dennis Haritou: JR, I had come across a remark about William Eggleston to the effect that he was a pioneer in the use of color in serious art photography. Since I don’t know very much about photography but wanted to improve my knowledge, I picked up a copy of William Eggleston’s Guide, which is considered a seminal photography book.
There’s an introduction in the book by the legendary John Szarkowski which I didn’t take away anything from. The introduction seemed like a succession of generalised truisms and almost vapid abstractions that could have just as easily been exchanged for another such set without it making much difference. I’m sure that reflects more on me than on Szarkowski, or almost sure. It’s certainly difficult to write well about photography.
So I wanted to proceed on the basis of my gut impressions, whatever they were. And I especially wanted to mention the cover photograph since we are allowed to show it.
First off, these pictures were taken in 1971. I was a young adult in those days so I lived through this period. 1971 still seems like an exotic foreign country to me and since I’m a northern city guy, the rural setting in the Civil Rights era South is also outside my experience, although I’d visited some Southern towns on business in the late 80’s. So I wonder how much of our interest in photography is affected by whether we are looking at something outside our experience or something very familiar. Eggleston is showing us his “home”. I recognize that.
Many of the pictures satisfy my voyeurism. There are shots of domestic interiors. And this bothers me, JR…there’s a shot on page 21 of a living room. The pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are spread out on a card table. The puzzle isn’t even started. Leads me to suspect that Eggleston spread out those puzzle pieces for effect. What’s up with that knee and the small fragment of a hand? If I had left a kneecap in the corner of a picture I would probably have wanted to crop it out. What do you think of that? Awkward fragments of body parts appear in a few pictures…Eggleston didn’t care…or did care and wanted them there?
That iconic cover picture: close-up of a tricycle. Eggleston would have to have laid down on his belly to take that shot. It’s like the toy bike stands for everything: childhood, it’s possible vulnerability, the suburban tract depicted in the background, families, a particular life…a form of civilization. I wonder…where is the kid? Use of color: I love the intense green and red of the bike. The bike is rusty and muddy. It’s been used. Is this a good picture because I can’t stop talking about it?
Jason Rice: DH, I can’t say that I have ever looked at other photographers work and thought, “that is an Eggleston knock-off”, at least not in the contemporary art world, anyway. His style is unique, and his tastes in the mundane drive the content.
I like how he takes the banal moments like a dog drinking from a dirty puddle and provides us with the image only, no context which we have to apply ourselves. I think there should be a few sentences telling us about the man on page 94, why is he naked and clearly in a run down hotel, as that can’t possibly be the pace he lives. To answer your question about the body parts, I don’t think he cared, it was the overall image that concerned him, and the arresting quality it has on the viewer. It takes a long time to see the man raking the dirt on page 70, just to the left of the new house. I almost want to visit where that picture was taken to see if someone lives there now? It seems like a modular home, and was probably brought in on the back of a large truck. The tricycle picture that adorns the cover is troubling in that it almost becomes cliche in it’s magnet-on-the-refrigerator familiarity. I don’t need to see it anymore, and I hope it is not sent to me as a postcard because the sender would be trying to buy in on that cliche and somehow pass it over to me. It is cynical me to think that it’s overused, and tired. But it is.
The woman on page 38, I have long wondered about her, the ranch houses over her left shoulder, and the cement partition she is sitting on. Is she a teacher? Is she correcting papers from her class? Why is she sitting in that spot? He happened upon her, I’m sure. The pole with the chain around it suggests that there is a part of the day when the space out of view (a parking lot) is locked up, and there is an opposing pole somewhere behind Eggleston. Is it a church? The images Eggleston submits to us are filled with more questions than anything else.
I personally don’t care for Szarkowski’s opening refinement of the images we are about to see, and his attempt at contextualizing the world that Eggleston has captured. The fading south, and what’s left of the past blowing away but not before he gets to take a picture of it. The shot that bothers you on page 21 is much less exciting to me than the lack explanation of who the man is on page 27, and why do we follow him to a cemetery on page 33? Who is he to Eggleston? I am sure there is an explanation somewhere, but I have not seen it or heard of it.
There is a documentary on William Eggleston called ‘William Eggleston in the Real World’, made by the filmmaker Michael Almereyda. It reveals Eggleston to be an odd character with very poor social skills, but it does add some context to these pictures. We see him in his home, with his son, and so on. We walk the streets with him and watch him work. He photographs the mundane, and that’s it. The movie isn’t all that good, but it rounds out what I think of his work, just enough to give me a full picture of him.
You’re right DH, he is a voyeur, but he doesn’t always show it, or tell it. The woman with no arms on page 64 under the cherry blossom tree, half on the sidewalk and half off. The kids walking through the gutter on page 73, clearly unsupervised and out walking the dog, but the mail hasn’t come yet, the flag on the mailbox is up, and maybe the younger boy is carrying his backpack, or it’s the older boys, who knows. The varying degrees of possibilities are endless, and we haven’t even gotten to tone on of the work. Its cool colors, and I mean temperature, are endless and extremely lush. The dye-transfer method of processing is what probably flipped the switch and broke it open for him. The technique allows him to make the details of the ordinary seem slightly more than, but only slightly. The feeling is all his, and you sense some of the risk that may or may not be there just out of frame, but his tone suggests it and that is all you need to know.
Would the image of the dinner on page 89 be any good if the meat on the plates and the silverware being used didn’t shimmer with deep colors? (that is nice silver) Are those flowers fake? Why is there only one place set, with only a meal of meat and green beans? And how many biscuits (they look good) do you think we need to eat?
It puts you in the drivers seat, and I think that’s what most interesting about all of this work. Quite often you are uncomfortable because you are looking at something you have no real business to look at, but you look and wonder, just like Eggleston.