Born of Willful Passivity: The Art of William Eggleston

RICHARD B. WOODWARD – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
The photographer William Eggleston has always depended on the kindness of editors. This shy, dissolute Southern cavalier (soon to be 70 years old) has almost never held a job or selected his own work for a book or an exhibition. It’s as though reading a storyline into the tens of thousands of images he has shot around the world since the 1960s were superfluous or vulgar, something for others to bother with.
At the beginning of his career he left that task to two of the most capable minds in American art: Walter Hopps, who discovered him in 1970 when he was director of the Corcoran Gallery; and John Szarkowski, who as director of the Department of Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art gave Mr. Eggleston a one-man show in 1976 that changed the course of photography as an art.
That controversial exhibition and its peculiar catalog, “William Eggleston’s Guide,” legitimized color photography, overturning a hierarchy that had favored black-and-white since the medium’s invention. Unlike artists of earlier generations, Mr. Eggleston did not use color for freakish or decorative effect but with a natural ease, “as though the blue and the sky were one thing,” in Mr. Szarkowski’s appreciative phrase.
Editing Mr. Eggleston is vital, and this function, even before the deaths last year of Messrs. Hopps and Szarkowski, had passed in this decade to the German curator and writer Thomas Weski. Deputy director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, he organized “Los Alamos,” the sprawling 2003 exhibition of photographs that Mr. Eggleston took around the U.S. between 1964 and 1974, and he is co-curator, with Elizabeth Sussman, of “Democratic Camera,” the retrospective now at the Whitney Museum through Jan. 25.
Mr. Eggleston’s temperament is that of a boulevardier. His books seldom have a single theme and never feature a group of identifiable characters. They don’t even confine themselves to a single city, state or country. Instead, his international oeuvre — mainly shot with small-format cameras in available light — consists of tiny epiphanies that correlate only if you want them to. The seeming randomness of the artist’s attention, as much as the color, is what baffled many viewers back in 1976.
What were the connections, if any, between places and people? Did the dog sipping from a puddle in the road have anything to do with the naked man standing in a red room with graffiti on the walls? Were the green-tiled shower and the interior of the oven in the same house? (I once asked Mr. Eggleston if he had ever photographed methodically. “I’ve taken a few stabs at it and it’s just not me,” he replied.)
Mr. Weski and Ms. Sussman have kept things loosely chronological but not imposed too much order. A room of his grainy black-and-white photos from the 1960s conveys ambiguous reactions to his native South undergoing suburbanization. Another room features a legendary black-and-white video he made in 1973-74. “Stranded in Canton,” as he titles it, offers a peek at the artist’s bizarre and fluid social world and his nonjudgmental attitude toward what his camera sees. Shot mainly at night in New Orleans, it has appearances by Delta bluesman Furry Lewis, a man biting the head off a chicken, and numerous rambling monologists.
The rest of the show is color, done with the fresh, restless eye for which Mr. Eggleston is renowned. He should be a hero to any artist opposed to the pompous or monumental. During the ’70s and ’80s he looked at things few had noticed before — the objects that collect under a bed, the strange emptiness of a suburban garage, an evening meal set for one — and he discovered therein unique harmonies and discontinuties that only a color photographer could grasp.
Many photographers since Walker Evans have focused on decaying structures and mourned the replacement of the ramshackle cabin with the new mall. Mr. Eggleston shares that sensibility. But when he switched to color in the late ’60s and early ’70s, first with transparencies and then with print film, he also recorded the wide range of hues unique to the industrial age: the faded paint of automobiles and storefronts, the many shades of gray and brown in cement and macadam, the bold solids and stripes of manufactured clothing.
Against these synthetic dyes, he has often contrasted a girl’s red hair or dark skin, a scruffy patch of grass, a pattern of sun across a sink, a startling blue sky. Such combinations of manmade and natural color exist everywhere and help to define the look of our time, even if most of us have failed to pay attention.
Looking inside a freezer, he finds that ice has a lavender tinge. A woman’s hand stirring a drink aboard an airplane seems to turn it into gold as sun through the window strikes the glass. Many artists have fallen for early morning dappled light. But in his photograph of a phone off the hook on a flowered sheet, the sun at that hour gives extra temporal mystery to a scene of a conversation interrupted for reasons we are not privy to…
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Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

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