William Eggleston’s Democratic Vision
By Stephanie Murg
William Eggleston is partial to impartiality. He professes to have no favorite photographs or subjects, and prides himself on taking “just one picture of one thing.” His distinctive images float free of titles. “If there is enough in the picture, how in the world is a title going to help?” Eggleston has said. “The only thing it would add is confusion.” What remains is hauntingly clear and vividly colored: the strangely obvious made obviously strange, on view through December 17th in his first exhibition at New York’s David Zwirner gallery.
The show presents 42 works from The Democratic Forest, a body of some 12,000 pictures made by Eggleston in the 1980s while traveling from his home in Memphis, Tennessee across southern and eastern parts of the United States and in several European countries. “The title refers to my method of photographing,” he has said, “the idea that one could treat the Lincoln Memorial and an anonymous street corner with the same amount of care, and that the resulting two pictures would be equal, even though one place is a great monument and the other might be a place you’d like to forget.”
When seen through Eggleston’s lens (usually a no-frills 50 mm), parked cars and palm trees and power lines snap to an unseen grid of dramatic possibilities heightened by vibrant hues. The glossy curves of a cyan picnic table atop a patch of Astroturf cannot be trusted. Tomatoes marooned on a pale cutting board appear to be plotting their escape into the celadon sink. An abandoned hose snakes across the pavement, pursued by puddles of glowing green goo. The solemn pairing of chair and vacuum becomes a laundry room American Gothic.
The title refers to my method of photographing—the idea that one could treat the Lincoln Memorial and an anonymous street corner with the same amount of care, and that the resulting two pictures would be equal, even though one place is a great monument and the other might be a place you’d like to forget.William Eggleston
“They focus on the mundane world,” wrote Eudora Welty in her introduction to the photographs of The Democratic Forest (the original 1989 book and subsequent ten-volume set are now joined by a catalogue published by David Zwirner Books/Steidl on the occasion of the show). “But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!”
Eggleston, 77, has made a career and a signature pictorial style of capturing mysteries lurking in broad daylight. For nearly six decades, he has coaxed complexity out of its most ubiquitous and therefore successful hiding places: in supermarkets and gas stations, diners and driveways, kitchens and bedrooms. He started taking pictures during his first (and only) year at Vanderbilt, and soon after discovered the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, recognizing in those astonishing compositions an applied knowledge of art history. Eggleston’s own decisive moment came in choosing to pursue color at a time when serious “art” photographers—rare as they were in the 1960s and 70s—worked exclusively in monochrome.
His 1976 solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, accompanied by the monograph William Eggleston’s Guide, was a breakthrough, although critics panned the show (and Eggleston famously almost slept through the opening). Curator John Szarkowski, his influential champion, described the pictures as “real photographs, bits lifted from the visceral world with such tact and cunning that they seem true, seen in color from corner to corner.”
For all its democracy, Eggleston’s vision is aided and clarified by the pricey, complicated dye-transfer process. He is credited with ushering the slick printing technique into the art world. “I am at war with the obvious,” he once declared. A luscious palette is among his most precise and powerful weapons.
At once dashing and laconic, Eggleston generally prefers to let his work speak for itself. When pressed to comment upon his choice of subject matter or composition, he turns the conversation to another one of his great loves, such as music (an avid pianist, he can frequently be found perched at his concert grand) or dreams. He often dreams in photographs. “They’re just one beautiful picture after another—that don’t exist,” he has said. “A short time later, I don’t remember them. I just remember being very happy during the dream. And they’re always in color.”
Explore another footnote in The Stories:
On Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Conversation with Peter Galassi