Saturday, March 8, 2008

William Eggleston

I want to continue on the theme I wrote about in my last post--that it isn't what you write about, it's how you see.

Last week I got a couple of art books from the Cornell library--William Eggleston's monographs The Democratic Forest and Ancient And Modern. Eggleston is an American photographer who is often credited for popularizing color photography as a fine art medium. He's known for his pictures of ordinary objects and people, which he finds largely (though not exclusively) in small American towns. (The photo above is one of my favorites, in miniature--take careful note of the blurry posters in the lower right hand corner.)

If you don't know Eggleston's work, and think you can picture what I'm talking about, don't make the mistake of thinking he's a purveyor of Americana. He isn't. We're not talking about old folks laughing on verandas or aproned moms baking pies. We're also not talking about, say, the raw and disturbing portraits of vulnerability you get from, say, Nan Goldin. Rather, Eggleston's talent is for making the ordinary seem alien. The familiar--abandoned houses, people walking down the side of the road--hits you with new force. His most famous quotation--come to think of it, one of his only quotations--is "I am at war with the obvious." It's a bit misleading, because his pictures are of things you've already seen.

It's just that you've never seen them his way. This is what makes him a great artist--his eye.

If you're up for being simultaneously depressed and inspired, Rhian and I recommend a documentary about him, "William Eggleston In The Real World." It's a straightforward, low-budget production, shot on video; it basically follows Eggleston as he shuffles around taking pictures of stuff. The filmmakers had to subtitle everything he said, because he mumbles everything. The film makes his life appear somewhat chaotic--we meet his dissapated paramour a good hour before we ever see his wife--but his vision is always clear. "I think these are the best I've ever done," he mutters, looking at his latest set of prints. "You say that every time," the paramour retorts.

Eggleston represents everything that I think is unique and good about American art, and about American writing. His work is egalitarian without being common. He is brilliant without pretension. He implies that all experience is valuable, and that all people are interesting. This is a message worth hearing two posts in a row, I think.

EDIT: And props to 5RedPandas if she can name the album that lightbulb photo is on the cover of...

5 comments:

5 Red Pandas said...

Dude, if you're going to ask music trivia questions you should ask my husband James. He reads Ward Six.

Anyway, the answer is Big Star, Radio City, but I had to look it up. When I said "album cover, Eggleston" to James he immediately said, "Big Star". So yeah, he's the one who knows his stuff.

As an aside, my cd copy of "#1 Record/Radio City" doesn't have the Eggleston cover. So, no fair.

This is pretty funny because my father called today to try to stump James with some music trivia. The first question was who had a hit with "The Last Song" and James didn't get that, but then he called back and asked James who had a hit with "Beautiful Sunday", and James got it. My dad did say, "no fair looking on the computer," but James is too honorable to do that.

In light of the memoir controversies my band mate and I joked about collaborating on a rock memoir. Of course we'd have to make stuff up because we're the least hedonistic psyche band that ever existed. When I handed him a brownie last week he paused and asked, "That's not a special brownie is it?" He wanted to make sure that I *wasn't* trying to drug him.

Of course I could appropriate my uncle's story. He tried to tell me that Blondie drugged and kidnapped him once. This is not one of my saner uncles.

jrlennon said...

A "special brownie"! It sounds like a hippie kindergarten flashback.

Good work, James. As trivia goes, it was way too easy. ;-)

rmellis said...

What I loved about the movie is the way he was also constantly painting and making music -- it was all part of his vision, even though he wasn't about to get a recording contract or an art show.

Also, it was interesting how reluctant he was to explain his art or even think about it too much, as if by overthinking it he'd chase it away.

bookfraud said...

william eggleston...big star...all you need is to mention stax or peter taylor to make it a complete memphis triumvirate. i used to pass eggleston's house frequently growing up, though it was hidden behind a bank of bushes and trees. nobody really knew what was behind the thicket, in fact. it wasn't until i was an adult that i found out.

eggleston is a genius of common southern paraphernalia, among other things.

jrlennon said...

One senses that if he'd ended up in Nashville instead, none of this would ever have happened.

Bookfraud, I liked your instant fake memoir, BTW.