William Eggleston’s great early photographs stick it to you in at least two ways: first, you sink up to your knees in Naugahyde and polyester, bouffant hair, shiny chrome, stained asphalt, and fresh suburban cement. Secondly, linger in front of almost any image – and almost everyone does – and you are liable to tumble through a weird wormhole where everything appears just as vivid and unsettled as the day he clicked the shutter, as in his portrait of a grubby guy sitting ramrod straight in the back seat of a stately car in Jackson, Mississippi (c. 1969–71) or the off-kilter image of a flaming Hibachi grill on a cluttered driveway in Memphis (c. 1969–71).
When Eggleston – who predictably shows up on the first colour page of any photographic history book (the only predictable thing about him) – started to experiment with colour photography in 1965, the medium was predominantly used to sell products or capture fading family memories and, since it had to be commercially developed, was thought by many to lack the hands-on artistic integrity of black and white. The 75 images in Eggleston’s landmark 1976 solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art were dye transfer prints, an expensive technique that lent his vignettes of the deep American South, laden with cruddy modern debris and home-grown ennui, an exciting (and misguided, according to some) trace of glamour. The show, which was roundly panned, opened right on the heels of a memorial exhibition for Paul Strand – which was a bit like Dorothy’s Technicolor house plopping down on the master of black and white photographic Modernism.
More than 30 years later and less than 30 blocks north, ‘William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961–2008’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art (co-organized with Haus der Kunst, Munich) proved that his work stands alone today just as much as it stood out then – colour isn’t even the most remarkable aspect of it anymore. (Nor was it ever, exclusively: Stephen Shore also exhibited his own colour photos at MoMA in 1976, right after Eggleston. Timing is everything.) Instead, it is his bleakly and obliquely first-person-singular perspective that is most revolutionary, along with his restless curiosity about what anything and everything would look like photographed.
Thanks to Eggleston’s arresting, casual compositions and the careful curatorial culling of his voluminous body of work, things generally look sharp and very often iconic. His most familiar photographs retain their punch, in part because of bedevilling peripheral details like the intriguing sex position poster visible at the bottom of Greenwood, Mississippi (1973) – the red room with a single, exposed light fixture. It grounds the image, which otherwise tends toward vernacular formalism, in seedy reality.
Other works – including a handful of black and white images from the early 1960s – are surprising; they reveal Eggleston zipping through photographic influences such as Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn. His recently re-mastered video installation, Stranded in Canton (1973–4) began as a project to document soul music in Memphis and New Orleans but became an episodic depiction of boisterous drunks, party girls and drama queens hamming it up for the camera. Dated document of post-hippy revelry or a still photographer’s prescient foray into informal, time-based art? It’s a fruitful toss-up.
Early on, Eggleston confessed to a friend that he didn’t much like what was around him, and the friend sagely suggested that this could be a good basis for taking pictures. Fanning out from his fancy, faded Southern Gothic family home in Sumner, Mississippi, into the area’s brand new shopping centres and growing suburbs, and finally on his series of fruitful road trips, Eggleston seems to have coaxed and cultivated his deadpan distaste into full-on populist vision. His ‘Los Alamos’ series, taken across the South and Southwest between 1965–8 and 1972–4, has the heft and inevitable character of a career-making opus, though, until a few years ago, it existed only as negatives in a closet. This mammoth, strident body of work contrasts with the lacklustre elegance of Eggleston’s commissions – as when Rolling Stone magazine sent him to Jimmy Carter’s hometown in Georgia in 1976 and when Elvis Presley Enterprises invited him to Graceland in 1983. Although the show extends to the present day, it is the earlier works that exemplify Eggleston’s vast, varied influence on photographers such as Alec Soth, Catherine Opie, Wolfgang Tillmans and Ryan McGinley, not to mention the generation of Flickr photographers who carry out his epic notion of ‘a democratic way of looking around … that nothing was more important or less important’.