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Old South Meets New, in Living Color

Old South Meets New, in Living Color

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.

Mr. Eggleston. More Photos »

William Eggleston at the WhitneySlide Show

William Eggleston at the Whitney

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.

These were the Merry Prankster and “Easy Rider” years, when road trips and craziness were cool, and Mr. Eggleston set out on some hard-drinking picture-taking excursions. He also embarked on repeated shorter expeditions closer to home in the form of epic bar crawls, which resulted in the legendary video “Stranded in Canton.”

Originally existing as countless hours of unedited film and recently pared down by the filmmaker Robert Gordon to a manageable 76 minutes, it was shot in various places in 1973 and 1974. (The new version is in the retrospective.) Mr. Eggleston would show up with friends at favorite bars, turn on his Sony Portapak, push the camera into people’s faces and encourage them to carry on.

And they did. Apart from brief shots of his children and documentary-style filming of musicians, the result is like some extreme form of reality television. Your first thought is: Why do people let themselves be seen like this? Do they know what they look like? You wonder if Mr. Eggleston is deliberately shaping some tragicomic Lower Depths drama or just doing his customary shoot-what’s-there thing, the what’s-there in this case being chemical lunacy. For all the film’s fringy charge there’s something truly creepy and deadly going on, as there is in much of Mr. Eggleston’s art. You might label it Southern Gothic; but whatever it is, it surfaces when a lot of his work is brought together.

Images of gravestones and guns recur, but the real morbidity comes indirectly, like mood, through association. A little girl stands outside a playhouse reminiscent of a Victorian mausoleum; a young man sits in the back of a car, dazed, like a zombie from “Night of the Living Dead.” Houses look empty, meals abandoned; an oven stands open, as if inviting entry; a green-tiled shower suggests an execution chamber.

In many of these images color has the artificial flush of a mortician’s makeup job. This effect achieves its apotheosis in a series of commissioned photographs from 1983 of Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Mr. Eggleston depicts the singer’s home as an airless, windowless tomb, a pharaonic monument to a strung-out life embalmed in custom-made bad taste.

But then there are moments of utter old-fashioned beauty, natural highs. You’re outdoors in the farmlands of Jimmy Carter’s Georgia, in a series of pictures commissioned by Rolling Stone before the 1976 election. Or you’re standing under mountainous clouds on a piece of wide, flat earth that is Mr. Eggleston’s family land.

Probably no one asked for this picture. He took it because he takes pictures a lot, and that’s where he was with his camera that day. The clouds just happened, the way clouds do.

As a group Mr. Eggleston’s more recent pictures, in the series called “The Democratic Forest,” add to, rather than develop or depart from, what came with that giant step he took in the ’60s and ’70s. There are more images of pop-cultural glut, unsavory home cooking and soulful skies. There is also more obvious artfulness as his travels take him to Europe and Asia and onto film sets at the invitation of directors like David Lynch, Gus Van Sant and Sofia Coppola, all of whose work he has profoundly influenced.

The color has grown lusher than ever and the angle of vision indirect as we see reality layered on, refracted through glass, in mirror reflections. The world is still chipped and scarred, but cleaner. The subjects in the pictures feel lingered over. The stoned, on-the-road, trapped-in-yesterday rawness is gone. Some of these new pictures really are banal and a little boring, in part because the mess of life gets left out.

This isn’t surprising. Part of being a long-term traveler is that you get comfortable; you relax. You stop living on adrenaline, stop bracing for jolts to the system. The irritated alertness conducive to a certain kind of art subsides. At some basic level the world is less strange and you’re less of a stranger to it, unless you deliberately derange yourself or hit the road again, or adjust yourself to a new now.

Mr. Eggleston, who lives in Memphis, is now on a project with Mr. Lynch; beyond that, I don’t know what his plans are. The America he presented to such shocking effect more than 30 years ago is now full color — not black and white, not North and South — in every sense. The national soul is still as delirious and furious, but maybe a little more sober, or about to become so. I wonder what one of our finest living photographers will continue to make of it.


“William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008” continues through Jan. 25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; (212) 570-3600,

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