Wednesday, January 12, 2011
The Lost Eggleston Review
This is the piece the WEEKLY didn't want - thought I should get it out there before the exhibit closes this weekend:
The Egg Shall Rise Again!
William Eggleston and resurgence of the here-and-now
It’s hard to imagine, but William Eggleston’s art was considered quite revolutionary in its time. Of course that probably says more about the times – the 1970’s – and his chosen medium – photography – than it does about William Eggleston – or “Egg” as his good friends call him. In many ways, photography was the seed of much of the tumult that encompassed the world in the 60s – certainly it’s emergence in the mid-19th century sent representational painting into a tailspin from which it can never hope to recover.
And, alongside so many other cultural currents, photography’s discontents came to a head just when the hippies were hitting the fan. But paradoxically, as one of the most technically fussy and commercially exploitable new media, photography was simultaneously the bête noire of traditional artmaking and the beleaguered stronghold of the kind of huffy authoritarian craftsmanship capital-A Art had come to represent. Weird times.
Weirder still because by the 1970s photography had just barely managed to edge itself into the hallowed climes of The Fine Arts. From the get-go, photography’s representational immediacy and infinite reproducibility posed such a threat to the traditional order of things that an entire sub-industry of theory and criticism sprang up to explain how photography was not Art.
And, inevitably, entire sub-industries of explainers and craftspersons emerged, whose position was that photography could be Art, as long as it agreed to follow certain rules. This took some weird-ass turns involving babes dressed in togas acting out morally uplifting narratives, or technically miraculous in-focus renderings of entire fields of gravel. But first and foremost, it had to be black and white.
Maybe it was because the color technology took quite awhile to catch up, or because many of photography’s advocates approached it through from a “graphic” or even “textual” frame of reference, but as late as 1976 no color photographer had been allowed a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art – the de facto institutional arbiter of all visual cultural endeavors of import.
Enter the Egg, pigments a-blazin! That year, MOMA’s “Photographs by William Eggleston” and the accompanying publication “William Eggleston’s Guide” threw the art photography world for a loop, flooding what had ostensibly been the exclusive either/or domain of austere arrays of silver halide molecules with a supersaturated gush of sensory nuance – a whole spectrum of phenomena that could not be reduced to a binary language.
And the color wasn’t the only thing – Egg’s pictures are almost pathologically inclusive. A scrap of lumber, a vacuum hose, an empty lot, a freezer crammed with tater tots – each is as compelling to Eggleston’s regard as a nude man attempting a lotus position underneath his living room gun rack. The content isn’t exactly irrelevant, but each pictorial element is accorded equal weight, an equal voice, an equal potentiality of meaning. The door had been cracked open to let in a little color, but Egg went and gave the keys to every John Doe in creation. And the wad of gum on the shoe of the horse he rode in on.
It is this quality of Eggleston’s work that gave name to “Democratic Camera: Photographs and Video, 1961 -2008” -- the locally unballyhooed Egg-rospective organized by the Whitney Museum and currently on view in its last tour stop at LACMA. It is a quality in sharp contrast to the strict and nuanced social protocols of Egglestons’s upper-class southern upbringing. When asked what he thought about Western Civilization, Gandhi once quipped “I think it would be a very good idea.” The same holds true for the idea of democracy, which really hasn’t been given a fair shake in the real world. That’s what’s so great about art. You can try these things out and see how it goes.
And for Eggleston, it went pretty good. His microcosmic experiment in democracy proved to be one of the most influential moments in contemporary visual culture, and, yes, a revolutionary turning point in the history of photography. Many of his images have become iconic – the single white lightbulb on the red ceiling, the pissed-off secretary sitting on the yellow curb, the vertiginous snapshot of a gilded Elvis portrait in situ at Graceland. Without Eggleston’s influence, we would never have had the cinema of David Byrne and Harmony Korine, or those remarkable American Apparel billboards – not to mention the Fine Photography oeuvres of Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans. Thanks Egg!
All kidding aside (I actually love the cinema of Harmony Korine), any assessment of Eggleston’s artistic legacy has to finesse this very specific cultural history to get to the meat of the matter. What about all the color commercial photography and photojournalism that came before Eggleston’s so-called breakthrough? What about the undigestible mass of vernacular photography that is said to have “informed” Eggleston’s vision? Where’s their friggin’ retrospective? How is this democracy thing supposed to work again?
Compounding all this is the fact that Egg’s influence is now so pervasive as to be almost invisible. The frisson of transgression that made his work newsworthy back in the day has long been rendered obsolete by exponential indulgences both in the jaded academic and museum worlds and – a million times over – in pop culture. So the question arises: is their any reason to be looking at William Eggleston’s photographs now, or should I just renew my subscription to VICE?
To answer this, it helps to remember that Eggleston’s approach didn’t materialize out of the blue, but was part of a tradition of improvisational documentarian photography that included Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose concept (and eponymous book) of “the decisive moment” was one of the foundational concepts of 20th century photography.
One of the central struggles of modern art has been the attempt to reconcile the creation of relatively permanent artifacts with the impermanent flux of phenomena that contemporary science, philosophy, and human experience insist on. In many ways, the intuitively composed street photo, snapped before any conscious analytical process has time to kick in, is the epitome of this conundrum: an image that hinges between subjective and objective views of the world, freezing a wafer-thin sample of the artist’s consciousness engaging with the chaotic stream of sensory information that makes up reality. This is “the decisive moment,” and it stands alongside Free Jazz and Abstract Expressionism as a touchstone of modern cultural exploration of the nature of time and human creativity.
Considered in this light, Eggleston’s work become part of a movement away from contingencies and negotiations of historical time, and towards a comprehension of the immediate moment – his immaculately printed photographs and pristine museological surveys mere shadows of his moment-to-moment engagement with the down-and-dirty world. As such, Egg’s art remains masterful in its capacity to awaken us to the world – to the inexhaustible sweetness of Magic Hour light, to the infinitely subtle vocabularies of vernacular signage and architecture, to the supersaturated beauty of a piece of crap in the gutter. I’ve never met William Eggleston, but I consider him a good friend for all the moments of pleasure his work – and his way of looking at the world -- has given me. Thanks, Egg. There may still be a little revolution left in you after all!
William Eggleston: Democratic Camera—Photographs and Video, 1961–2008
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles 90036
Thru January 16 2011
Images: Untitled (Memphis), 2000; Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973; Greenwood, Mississippi, c.1972; Memphis, c.1971; Near the River at Greenville, Mississippi, c.1983-86; Untitled, n.d.; Untitled, 1978