Friday, November 7, 2008

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008

Photo-William Eggleston- An untitled and undated photograph

Photo- William Eggleston-An untitled 1973 print.

This show is a must see for ARTmostfierce and you .
Please read show review by Holland Cotter of the NY Times.
Published: November 6, 2008
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.

Although unidentified, these people and others were part of Mr. Eggleston’s life: family, friends and neighbors. The retrospective — organized by Elisabeth Sussman, curator of photography at the Whitney, and Thomas Weski, deputy director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich — takes us through that life, or what the pictures reveal of it, on a tour that is a combination joy ride, funeral march and bad-trip bender. Patches of it feel pretty tame now, but whole stretches still have the morning-after wooziness of three decades ago.

Mr. Eggleston is a child of the American South. He was born in Memphis in 1939 and spent part of his childhood living with grandparents on a Mississippi cotton plantation. His family was moneyed gentry; he has never had to work for a living. Self-taught, he was already seriously taking pictures by the time he got to college (he went first to Vanderbilt, later to the University of Mississippi); his encounter with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans pushed him along.

By his own account, unless he is working on commission his choice of subjects for pictures is happenstantial. He shoots whatever or whoever is at hand. The earliest picture in the show, from 1961, is of a prison farm adjoining his family’s plantation. Murky and grainy, it could be a scene from the 19th century; the prisoners are all black. Then come any-old-thing images of post-World War II strip malls and suburbs; almost everyone is white.

Although Mr. Eggleston rejects the label of regional photographer, he was, at least initially, dealing with the complicated subject of a traditional Old South (he says the compositions in his early pictures were based on the design of the Confederate flag) meeting a speeded-up New South, which he tended to observe from a distance, shooting fast-food joints and drive-ins almost surreptitiously, as if from the dashboard of a car.

Around 1965 he started to use color film, and his range expanded. He moved in close. The first picture he considers a success is in the show. It’s of a teenage boy standing about arm’s length from the camera. He’s seen in profile, pushing carts at a supermarket. His face is slack, his eyes a little glazed, his body bent in an effortful crouch. He’s ordinary, but the golden sunlight that falls on him is not: it turns his red hair lustrous and gilds his skin. A prosaic subject is transformed but unromantically; lifted up, but just a little, just enough.

In 1967 Mr. Eggleston made a trip to New York, where he met other photographers, important ones, like Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, learning something from each. Although he has a reputation for being remote, even reclusive, he also has a public persona as a dandyish hell raiser, a kind of exemplar of baronial boho. In any case he has never lacked for art-world connections. Mr. Szarkowski was one; another was the curator Walter Hopps, who became a friend and traveling companion beginning in the 1960s and ’70s.

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