Monday, August 20, 2007
William Eggleston's Guide
This morning, lying in bed, on the shelving next to me I randomly picked up William Eggleston's Guide which while not intentionally meant to be there, still offered me a bit of everyday felicity, as potent, it seems, as when I first saw the book.
The small format of the book, its faux-finish cover, like an erstwhile album - its modest sequencing - it is one of the books I treasure. Considering the actual amount of work that Eggleston has probably done - it is such a tiny but still exquisite edit. When I first saw the book years ago I perceived the images to be a projection of sorts of the children in the book - thinking perhaps of the child on the garage floor - this was his book. Looking at Eggleston's work over the years I realize I had projected my fantasies into the work, overwhelming it perhaps, but I think my skewed perspective does touch on what I think is Eggleston's true merit which is an intense sensitivity & ability to look anywhere in the world. This "democratic" vision is interpreted by John Szarkowski along formal terms - an agenda Szarkowski brought to his own curatorial strategies in the 1970s - but I would say there is a "there" there as well - a reality to the things, even if the photographs in their grace & gaze seem to drain all context & outside meaning from the images. Szarkowski wrote, "Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is inevitably about photography, the container & vehicle of all its meanings. Whatever a photographer's intuitions or intentions, they must be cut and shaped to fit the possibilities of his art. Thus, if we see the pictures clearly as photographs, we will perhaps also see, or sense, something of their other, more private, willful and anarchic meanings." In Szarkowski's view what a photograph is is its corporeality, its will to being a photograph, which in such a system is curiously ahistorical - detached from meaning or interaction from the world outside of itself - or to clarify, any meaning which would be part of a greater cultural reckoning. In such a logic there is a suspension of any sense of cultural relativity - it is the logic of undisturbed patrician values. A photograph is a "photograph" first, then a photograph of something, or a photograph doing something, later. Still, despite my reservations, Szarkowski follows such a passage with one of the truly haunting statements about photography, "The world now contains more photographs than bricks, & they are astonishingly, all different. . ."
I would question whether all photographs are astonishingly all different from one another - but that's another story.
Eggleston in interviews is remarkably laconic about his own work - in contradistinction to the excess of of glib contextualizations taught in art schools these days. Still in the Szarkowski introduction, Eggleston does offer a cryptic observation that his compositions are based on the composition of the flag of the Confederacy, which is hardly a symbol drained of meaning outside of its form. & this was after almost 2 decades of civil rights activism in the US! Eggleston's work traffics in both high & low - the dining room centerpiece, along w/ garbage in a ditch, the remnants of signs for Nehi or gasoline, along w/ bits & pieces of the lost world of the ghostly Confederacy. If I feel critical of Szarkowski's theories for suppressing the social, the world-at-large, the photograph as a cultural product, I would state, that that sort of cultural aphasia is what gives Eggleston's work its power - it's simultaneous embrace & distance of a messy contradictory world, its lack of interpretation, its mechanical indexing of whatever whenever. Even in contrast to a hermetic, depressed photographer such as Robert Frank, the epitome of a post-war nomadic artist - Frank's work in The Americans & The Lines of My Hand has an almost documentary & social value - whereas Eggleston's inventories of the mundane things of the world float in a much more intangible ether. Robert Frank's journey is identifiable, his moods are distinct - if we don't know where he is going we still have something of a map to orient ourselves. But where is Eggleston? Where is he going? Everywhere? Nowhere? Eggleston's refusal to interpret his work reminds me of an aphorism I may be mistakenly attributing to Diana Vreeland (of all people), "Elegance is Refusal."
Eggleston's work is usually presented as local, "Southern" & in this Southernness he is joined by such great colleagues as Eudora Welty (herself a very fascinating photographer) & William Christenberry. Referring to any of them as "Southern" states a fact of their backgrounds & locales, but their arts could hardly be contained by any idea determined simply by such boundaries. The cosmos may look a great deal like Memphis after all. I think Eggleston has been well-served by such peers - Szarkowski's intruction to The Guide, Eudora Welty's introduction to The Democratic Forest - & if anyone has ever had the great fortune to hear William Christenberry speak, Christenberry in his graciousness will speak of his good friend as well as his own work. We are also fortunate to have Michael Almereyda's film of Eggleston, William Eggleston In the Real World, to view. Eggleston has a bit of a tabloid past, which although of (excuse the pun) great color, still seems almost besides the point in trying to understand his work. Or it is simply an outer shell of being, which indicates the unfathomable complexities of an artist, without necessarily revealing much. I can't help but think of Eggleston as a romantic artist along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe (for example), rather than a tabloid headline. A patrician, an aristocrat, with deep reserves of - well whatever it is, he's not telling, & one can appreciate his delicacies in this matter.
Instead we have Eggleston's images, which with great economy and simplicity turn the world into ciphers. What is remarkable about the book as well is Szarkowski's donnish plea for the merits of color photography - since the publication of The Guide, color photography has become the norm as opposed to it's once clandestine position in the art world. Mercifully, there are delights to reading Szarkowski: as a wordsmith he is felicitous to read, content notwithstanding. & considering that Szarkowski was the great architect of American Art Photography in his time, all of which was black-&-white - Szarkowski's willful contradiction of himself (although this is overstating the case) is also an aspect of this charm. It could also be perceived as an attribute of Szarkowski's cultural power at the time - an indication of his clout as an arbiter of quality. Szarkowski's ideas read as a kind of conversation, with multiple threads of thought, digressions, happenstance.
The impact of Eggleston's use of color was misapprehended as a use of more commercial, mass-produced technologies, outside of the hand-crafted artisanal black-&-white work of darkroom experts. This would place Eggleston's work more along the lines of conceptual artists such as Ed Ruscha who used inexpensive methods as a strategy - this in turn coming out of Pop art, & Duchamp's "readymade" - still I would point to the sumptuousness of Eggleston's dye-transfer prints, which have a sensuality far beyond the machine-made. This aint no drugstore print - although both Eggleston & Christenberry made absolutely lovely work as well with Brownie cameras & the local camerashop printers. Eggleston's overt dandyism, his seeming aloofness from the intricacies of techniques (think of the common photo books of the time such as by Hollywood glamor photographers such as George Hurrell - the books meticulously record camera & darkroom information - aperture, film type, developers, etc - information for the avid darkroom hobbyist) obscures his meticulousness of execution. Eggleston's public image is closer to the genteel hobbyists of the 19th century - Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Count Primoli - than to either darkroom gearheads or commercial photographers existing in a parallel universe of fame & publicity. One sees a connoisseur, but a connoisseur of enigmas.
The limpid brevity of The Guide belies what seems to be an actual excess of work, now some of it slowly being exhibited & published. The Twin Palms book 2 1/4, Los Alamos, the book 5x7, large bodies of work in black-&-white, unedited video footage. My sense is that a lot of photographers simply worked a lot more than your average artist - one can only dream of the future portfolios appearing of Diane Arbus, or Peter Hujar, for example. Garry Winogrand's legendary (promoted by Szarkowski/MoMA) excess of exposed film notwithstanding, I think it was the general ethos of photographers of their generation to simply work A LOT. Think of the amazing & extensive portfolios of Lee Friedlander, as another example.
Which brings me back to where I began this morning, book in hand, gazing at the images & for a few moments transported - to where I feel a bit closer to the world.