- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

By William Eggleston
Twin Palms Publishers, $40, 50 pages, illus.

Imagine a Southerner with a feverish love of books and a lot to say. Picture him struck down by a stroke, unable to command his lips or his fingertips, alert but powerless in a world without words. Add some bourbon and a life along the Mississippi anesthetized by the sound and rhythm of the blues.

Such is the sense of William Eggleston’s “Stranded in Canton,” originally a sort of lost weekend captured on camera that stretched into two years of bingeing and posturing.

Mr. Eggleston, born in Memphis in 1939, seems to be such a man, someone capable of a great original vision, with a brave, low-key, down-home style. He has the gift to keep his subjects from becoming all self-conscious, and the bleary, teetering people in front of his lens never let go.

Thus is the measure of this peculiar book from Twin Palms, one of the most prestigious publishers of visual material in the world. The book has no words on the front or back of the cover, no title page, no foreword, dedication or captions. All it has are a colophon on the last page, and a title on the spine.

So what can we make of this gorgeous, oblong quarto, filled with dark, richly toned, and beautifully printed photographs? How can a story be told without words?

An actual experiment, a particularly elegant one, addressed these questions precisely.

Jon E. Grahe of Monmouth College in Illinois paired off 100 men with 100 women and first asked them to solve a simple wooden puzzle together. All of them were then asked to numerically rate the quality of their rapport in working together.

How easily could other observers then predict those scores? What if they were given only a written transcription to study for clues? What if they were given an audiotape recording to understand what had gone on? What if they could watch the scene from beginning to end, but in total silence, without benefit of hearing one word, even one sound that had passed between the test couples?

Out of the three choices, the silent visual record worked best if you wanted to understand how the subjects themselves had experienced their encounter.

So what’s the difference between a mere album of pictures when compared to a real visual language, all thick with the proven parts of grammar, syntax and cadence?

One is reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Ray Bradbury’s wordless illustrated newspapers in “Fahrenheit 451.”

These are not images from the plain Snapshot Esthetic of modern photography that won lonely applause back in 1976 at the Museum of Modern Art from director of photography John Szarkowski. This was also the era of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Mr. Eggleston became best known for introducing garish color into the high world of fine art photography. Now here instead the work is a ghostly black and white, courtesy of an infrared tube installed into a very early Sony Porta-Pak video that he used in 1973 and 1974.

In fact, the 40 pictures are actually video frame grabs, although the quality is so luscious that it is not readily evident. They are surrounded by pitch-black pages, just for the sake of pacing; and the images themselves seem to flicker to life under the glare of porch lights and Christmas decorations.

We see children feel a light rain on their faces. We see a young woman fall in love right through the camera lens. Bored and drunken grown-ups belt out song, fingers idly handle a shotgun shell, bragging with the dentist about healthy gums and a dilapidated human skull, turns from medical specimen into something cool to bring out and startle or impress visitors at the party.

Here are the crazed eyes of a family friend who had too much to drink, giving anyone who’ll listen a whiff of his troubles. There’s a mother’s folded flesh as she nurses her baby. A tough young woman loves dry-firing a revolver after her friend used up the last shots firing into the ceiling. Something terrible is brewing.

It is not crucial to our understanding or appreciation to know that the old blues guitar player who can draw up great things from his depths is named Furry Lewis, or that the flamboyant Mississippi Queen is Lady Russell, or that the dentist named T.C. Boring from Greenwood, who loved to chase the younger girls, was murdered on Mother’s Day in 1980. Those are just words. Everything you need to know about these people you can be sure of with your own eyes.

We only know these extra, specific facts because of a surprise at the very end. Buried into the thick boards of the back cover is a video disc. Two years’ worth of Mr. Eggleston’s habitual taping has been distilled into a 77-minute documentary with the help of editor Robert Gordon. There is even another half-hour of bonus material, including live blues recordings that give some of the project’s greatest reward. The finished production premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, and earned the praise of that filmmaker’s filmmaker Gus Van Sant.

The good news is that even though this book was first conceived as a housing for the disc, it also suggests that the simpler, older medium of a book is capable of great new language.

A perfectly silent one.

J. Ross Baughman is a senior editor at The Washington Times.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art welcomes a summer-long retrospective of William Eggleston’s work beginning June 20.

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