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ART: William Eggleston’s odes to the everyday
Visitors to the William Eggleston retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art may wonder why this photographer’s images are such a big deal. His prints of everyday situations — a tricycle on a suburban street, a telephone on a bed, a teenager at a supermarket — are so ordinary as to seem banal.
Mr. Eggleston makes it look easy, but after spending time in this exhibit, the artistry of his work becomes clearly apparent. The tricycle is shot from below to make it look monumental. The telephone receiver is pictured off the hook, awaiting the caller’s return. The teenager is shown pushing shopping carts with the graceful motion of an athlete.
The photos succeed in reminding us of the simple beauty in the mundane. Some even go so far as to expose the depths of familiar household appliances, including the contents of a freezer and the interior of an oven.
Organized by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, the show of more than 150 photographs traces Mr. Eggleston’s itinerant career from 1961 to the present. It is meant to show the “democratic” nature of his photography, the way he aims his camera at whatever is in front of him. “Nothing was more important or less important,” Mr. Eggleston once said of his viewpoint.
Despite this claim, the Memphis-born photographer has spent his career focused on the peculiarities of the South. His views of rundown plantation shacks, worn roadside signs and new subdivisions capture disparities within the region. Yet other shots of parking lots, shopping centers, cars and dogs present scenes that could be from just about anywhere in the country.
In his earliest work from the 1960s, segregation is addressed obliquely through separate pictures of blacks working on a plantation and whites hanging out at convenience stores and strip malls. Only a photo of a black servant standing behind a white man directly spells out the racial inequality.
The mood of Mr. Eggleston’s South is unromantic, awkward and sometimes seamy, as the exhibit documents his travels across the Mississippi Delta and around Memphis.
Although many of his subjects are unidentified, they often turn out to be his family, friends and locales where he has lived.
Mr. Eggleston was born in 1939 and spent part of his childhood on a Mississippi cotton plantation. He discovered photography as a student at Vanderbilt University during the late 1950s, inspired by the visceral approach of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The young Southerner’s work also came to be influenced by the documentary-style photography of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Their interest in the American vernacular is clearly shared by Mr. Eggleston throughout the exhibit, beginning with his first black-and-white prints. These images reveal an early affinity for commonplace settings, including fast food joints, stores and parking lots.
A handsome portrait of William Christenberry pays homage to this artist whose color photographs of the South, taken with a Brownie camera, spurred Mr. Eggleston to follow his example.
Color allowed the Memphis photographer to record everyday details in a sensuous, emotionally charged way. He began shooting in color in the mid-1960s and soon experimented with dye-transfer printing, a technique involving separate negatives, to achieve saturated hues.
Back in those days, this practice was derided by the art establishment as the vulgar stuff of advertising. Even as late as 1976 when Mr. Eggleston had a show of his color prints at the Museum of Modern Art, critics were displeased by the “boring” frames. Despite the negative reviews, the exhibit succeeded in encouraging a new generation to shoot in color at a time when only black-and-white photography was considered artistic.
In some of Mr. Eggleston’s prints, the brilliant hues seem the very reason for the photograph. “Memphis” (1971) captures the green-tiled interior of a shower stall. “Greenwood, Mississippi” (1973) isolates a bare light bulb in a bright red ceiling. “Almost at the Mississippi River, Dyersburg, Tennessee” (c. 1983-86) is taken up by a mustard-yellow field.
In terms of composition, Mr. Eggleston says half-jokingly that his pictures are based on the Confederate flag. Some photos of car hoods, sidewalks and streets clearly evidence an X configuration, while others merely stress the diagonal.
The photographer’s knack for framing memorable images is particularly noticeable in a series taken in 1983 at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion. In one striking view, pleated window draperies are reflected in a mirror hung over a striped sofa to form a graphic interplay of lines.
Mr. Eggleston seems most comfortable shooting settings devoid of people, but many of his most penetrating images are portraits.
A man sitting on the edge of a motel bed, a woman standing in a doorway, a child by the side of the road — many of his figural images capture a feeling of alienation and loneliness.
They recall the paintings of Edward Hopper, whose downbeat urbanites are situated within everyday environments such as hotels, apartments and movie theaters. With its shadowed, empty storefronts, Mr. Eggleston’s “Main Street, Greenville, Tennessee” (c. 1983-86) appears directly modeled on such a Hopper cityscape.
Large-format photos made in Memphis clubs and bars picture the bell-bottomed, long-haired drug culture of the early 1970s. They accompany the video “Stranded in Canton,” a diary of high-jinks made by Mr. Eggleston during his nighttime outings.
In the last part of the show, people disappear from Mr. Eggleston’s recent work. One gallery is hung with photos of houses, barns, churches and other structures in Plains, Ga. They were taken days before the town’s most famous resident, Jimmy Carter, won the 1976 presidential election, but noticeably omit the peanut farmer and his neighbors from their scenes.
A section focused on Mr. Egglestons newest work reveals an interest in artifacts suggestive of a human presence: a painted statue of the Virgin Mary, signs inside a Japanese taxicab, a TV screen reflected in a Kyoto hotel window. The photographer has left his beloved South to travel in Europe and Asia but still remains fascinated by the weird beauty that is all around him.
WHAT: “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008”
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, through Sept. 20
ADMISSION: $10 adults; $8 seniors, military, students
WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org
By Brahma Chellaney
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