William Eggleston at the Whitney.
Eggleston was born rich, in Memphis, in 1939, the maternal grandson of a prominent judge and a plantation heiress from Sumner, Mississippi. They raised him, in Sumner, almost from birth until the age of eleven, while his father served in the Navy and his mother lived mainly at a naval base in Florida. Afflicted with asthma, Eggleston grew up largely indoors, playing piano, drawing, and tinkering with sound equipment. Given a Brownie camera at the age of ten, he took pictures of his dog. The results disappointed him, and he had no further truck with the medium until 1957, when, briefly a student at Vanderbilt University, he bought a camera and a developer at the urging of a painter friend. Two years later, at the University of Mississippi (he never graduated from any college; he refused to take tests), he was profoundly affected by two classic books of modern photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” (1952) and Walker Evans’s “American Photographs” (1938).
Eggleston and Rosa Kate Dosset, a daughter of plantation owners and a friend since childhood, had been conspicuous in Sumner for their matching baby-blue Cadillacs. They married in 1964, and had three children. Eggleston is a gregarious, much-travelled, hard-living dandy, proud never to have owned a pair of jeans. An installation in the show, “Stranded in Canton” (circa 1973-74), screens excerpts from thirty hours of black-and-white videotape, some of which he shot using an infrared camera in dim light. The subject amounts to a louche, peripatetic Southern spawn of Andy Warhol’s dissipated Factory scene of the mid-sixties. Acquaintances of the photographer, drunk and/or drugged more often than not, hilariously rant, casually empty a pistol into a ceiling, bite the heads off live chickens (see it, believe it), and otherwise parade lives of unquiet desperation. Occasionally, the Delta blues singer Walter (Furry) Lewis brings the proceedings to order with an impromptu, haunting performance. I find it rewarding to think of Eggleston as a blues photographer. The extraordinary aesthetic discipline of his photographs shimmers with subliminal knowledge of the hell-bent—although, in a Southern vein, sardonically mannered—chaos that erupts in “Canton.” At the video’s end, a memorial sequence ticks off the untimely demise of many of the participants.
Eggleston belongs to a generation of Americans who elevated photography to the rank of a major art. In 1967, he met and impressed John Szarkowski, the photography curator of the Museum of Modern Art, who promulgated a theory of the medium as “a picture-making system.” Through Szarkowski, Eggleston met Arbus and the leading vernacular stylists Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. In 1970, his friend and sometime mentor William Christenberry, a color photographer of the rural South, introduced him to the wide-ranging curator Walter Hopps, with whom he took to crisscrossing the country by car, snapping pictures by the thousand. Szarkowski sprang Eggleston on the world in a stunning and controversial show at MOMA, in 1976. Conservative critics despised the snapshot-like informality and the plangent hues of, for example, a ground-level shot of a tricycle on a suburban street, its green metal parts, rusty handlebars, red handgrips, and black tires under a bone-white sky, as abrupt as lightning. The show trampled the traditional association of art photography with black-and-white film.
Eggleston’s uses of color insult intellectual values that long defined modern photography, including the work of his early heroes Cartier-Bresson and Evans. Carefully modulated black-and-white tonality conduces to mental as well as optical clarity; color befuddles. Eggleston’s receptiveness to chromatic profusion extends to a sense of space that spills beyond the limits of the framing edge. One of his best-known pictures shows a besuited white man outdoors with a deferential black servant. The tacit social commentary founders in surrounding details which surely any other photographer would have cropped out. At the show, I was mildly shocked to realize that my own memory had edited the image in exactly that way, framing a meaning that Eggleston’s actual composition, while not denying it, fastidiously de-emphasizes. He’s an aesthete, not a propagandist. His great subject is the too-muchness of the real. He does regularly suppress one significant element of lived experience: time. His art re-proves Roland Barthes’s influential theory of the punctum—a Proustian quantum of lost time—as intrinsic to photography’s emotional power. The hour on Eggleston’s clock is always right now. Whatever is dated in his early subjects—car models, hairdos—barges into the present with a redolence of William Faulkner’s famous remark that the past isn’t only not dead, it isn’t even past.
The Whitney show has been vividly installed by the curators Elisabeth Sussman and Thomas Weski with juxtapositions that interrelate like stanzas of a poem. Images of an opened, dark-blue oven and a grimy, green-tiled shower stall flank another, taken from the front seat of a car, of an emaciated, tattooed young guy, staring warily, with a bland residential street visible out the window behind him. The three pictures strike me as variations on a theme of gaping emptiness.
Eggleston has thrived on commissioned projects. Shots of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis home, sponsored by fellow-Memphians, suggest that the singer’s grandly garish taste in interior decoration was calculated with the photographer’s predilections in mind. Sent by Rolling Stone to portray Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, shortly before the 1976 election, Eggleston failed to find the candidate at home but compensated with a pictorial essay on the strangely glamorous drabness of the town and its ambient countryside. Lots of photographers have prowled picturesque back roads. What makes Eggleston special? An anecdote reported by Weski in the Whitney catalogue drops a clue. In 1964, Eggleston lamented to a friend, “I don’t particularly like what’s around me.” The friend, a New York artist named Tom Young, suggested that he should be taking photographs precisely for that reason. The hint inspired Eggleston to head directly to places he liked least, such as shopping centers. I think the emotional key to his genius is a stoical loathing, unblinking in the face of one scandalously uncongenial otherness after another. His subjects have no ascertainable dignity, except that of stubbornly existing. Nor does the hurting hipster behind the camera. All glory, such as it is, accrues to the art of photography, which doesn’t care what it beholds even as it burns it, through the eye, into the soul.