“The world is in color. And there is nothing we can do about that.”
William Eggleston, a native of Sumner, Mississippi, has remarked, and I think not cagily, “I don’t see my works as ‘Southern works’” (Knape 15). For me, one of Texas’ native daughters (currently residing in my beloved Chicago), I felt hit in the southern-sun-fevered-head viewing Eggleston, charged with the feeling of the fatigue and poverty and beauty of the Deep South. It’s as if he pulled up a seat for all of these Southern people (all my ancestors included—the Dellas, Granvilles and Garlands from Picayune, MS) at an eerie, greened vanity, and let their faces reflect towards us through the speckled glass.
John Szarkowski observed, “The work… [of the guide]… is on the surface as hermetic as a family album,” reminding me of the ancient photographs I have inherited: droning autumn leaves; “love bugs” in piles of tiny black stars on the dash; green tie-dye formations on the skin of my great uncle’s watermelons, Nana’s camera film, tied into the lap of her dress, suddenly falling into the water as she crossed a creek; my parents as “long hairs” visiting Mississippi in ancient family Polaroids from the 1970s; stockinged feet of southern ladies, grey whiskers of ruined elastic through the weird floral patterns in their house dresses—it all was so dizzyingly familiar to me, and as Eudora Welty brilliantly asserted of Eggleston’s photographs: “Familiarity will be what overwhelms us” (Szarkowski Guide, Ferguson 10).
The ordinary and the strange, twisting, interpenetrating, make the works dizzying—as he remarks in an interview with Ute Eskildsen, Director of the Department of Photography, Museum Folkwang, Essn., “I think, personally, that the world is so visually complicated that the word ‘banal’ scarcely is very intelligent to use” (Knape 12).
Eggleston’s work is lit up, to quote Virginia Woolf (writing here on the essays of Charles Lamb, in a manner that feels most appropriate to Eggleston’s photographs as well) with the “wild flash of imagination, that lightning crack of genius in the middle of them which leaves them flawed and imperfect, but starred with poetry” (Woolf 8). Eggleston stabbed lightning bolts of color through the black-and-whites of acceptable “art photography.” His 1976 exhibition of 75 photographs at the MOMA, entitled Color Photographs, were the basis for the MOMA’s first publication of color photography, William Eggleston’s Guide— part reference book for the dye-transfer technique, part navigation through Eggleston’s landscape (Knape 6).
Eggleston’s use of the dye-transfer technique, rendering color strangely vivid—allows for a process in which each color in a photograph can be singularly tinkered with and rendered.
Eggleston’s universe of color; color itself as a near-setting.
Art critic Sean Callahan reacts: “He emphasizes hues that soak the scene or resonate in a critical way, virtually creating effects of sound, silence, smell, temperature, pressure—sensations that black-and-white photography has yet to make” (Knape 4). Indeed, as the “family of man’s” family albums crack at the binding of black-and-white photographs and open to color photographs, the former seem as tame as braids looped around the head, and the latter wilder and spookier—more familiar and more strange. In using the dye-transfer technique—a method most frequently used in commercial photography of the day—Eggleston applied the most outrageously public mode—advertising—to the most private worlds. It was like advertising the private subject matter, stripping advertising it of its money, and leaving the human figure sitting there all lowly and lovely.
Another important part of his aesthetic concerns his personal experience in the mid ‘60s in an overnight industrial photofinishing lab, confronting and bringing to light the humble, amateur snapshots of Mississippi strangers’ friends and family. This “influence” perhaps informed the treatment of his subject matter— as noted by Thomas Weski in “The Tender-Cruel Camera,” the centrality of the figure in these snapshots find resonance in his works; indeed, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. noted that “the design of most of the pictures seemed to radiate from a central, circular core.” And John Szarkowski characterized Eggleston’s style as “not inappropriate for photographs that might be introduced as evidence in court”— the mug shot or incidental photographic evidence surrounding a crime-scene (Szarkowski Guide). In the essay “Eggleston’s World,” curator Walter Hopps recalls that Eggleston thought of his photographs as “’parts of a novel I’m doing’” (Knape 1).
To answer the tools and amateur art of the era with poetic and technical savvy seems to be a most gripping way to communicate with one’s society— hence the poignancy of Eggleston standing in front of the overnight processing equipment, watching the faces of the everyman rise into being. He artfully rendered some of the motifs suggested in these snapshot-type photos, and more sharply addressed what might have subtly flickered across the faces in these amateur photographs and in the American advertising of the Vietnam War era—a disquieting, portentous feeling. Mark Holborn discovers, “Behind the images there is the sense of danger” (Knape 5)
The heartbreakingly pretty youth, the homely, the peculiar, the irreverent—all are in attendance in Eggleston’s Southern wedding:
Tools are democratic; the camera itself is an objective eye, and in this sense is capable of recording acts of creation or decay, “violence and grace” (Flannery O’Connor).
Curator John Szarkowski on Eggleston’s photographs: “Their intelligence, wit, knowledge and style reach no father back than that person’s—which leads us away from the measurable relationships of art-historical science toward intuition, superstition, blood-knowledge, terror, and delight” (Szarkowski Guide).
William Eggleston, photograph by Mike Brown
William Eggleston: “I am at war with the obvious.”
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William Eggleston: Democratic Camera is on exhibition at the Art Institute’s Modern Wing through May 23rd—an amazing breadth of work, and Eggleston’s first major exhibition in Chicago in over two decades.
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The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers.
Written and Researched by Jessica Savitz
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Ferguson, Russell. Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950, New York: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001.
Knape, Gunilla, Director, Hasselblad Center. William Eggleston. Goteborg: Goteborg Museum of Art, 1998.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.