Old South Meets New, in Living Color : William Eggleston

Holland Carter – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
Thirty years ago photography was art if it was black and white. Color pictures were tacky and cheap, the stuff of cigarette ads and snapshot albums. So in 1976, when William Eggleston had a solo show of full-color snapshotlike photographs at the august Museum of Modern Art, critics squawked.
It didn’t help that Mr. Eggleston’s pictures, shot in the Mississippi Delta, where he lived, were of nothings and nobodies: a child’s tricycle, a dinner table set for a meal, an unnamed woman perched on a suburban curb, an old man chatting up the photographer from his bed.
That MoMA’s curator of photography, John Szarkowski, had declared Mr. Eggleston’s work perfect was the last straw. “Perfectly banal, perfectly boring,” sniffed one writer; “erratic and ramshackle,” snapped another; “a mess,” declared a third.
Perfect or not, the images quickly became influential classics. And that’s how they look in “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008,” a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art that is this artist’s first New York museum solo since his seditious debut.
Naturally we see the work more clearly now. We know that it was not cheap. The dye transfer printing Mr. Eggleston used, adapted from advertising, was the most expensive color process then available. It produced hues of almost hallucinatory intensity, from a custard-yellow sunset glow slanting across a wall to high-noon whiteness bleaching a landscape to pink lamplight suffusing a room.
And compositions that at first seemed bland and random proved not to be on a 2nd, 3rd and 20th look. The tricycle was shot from a supine position so as to appear colossal. The woman on the curb sits next to a knot of heavy chains that echoes her steel-mesh bouffant. The affable guy on the bed holds a revolver, its barrel resting on his vintage country quilt.
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