William Eggleston: object-oriented photographer


“Bill at one time said to his great, highly-respected friend: ‘Well what am I gonna photograph? Everything around here is so ugly.’ And our friend said: ‘photograph the ugly stuff'” Rosa Eggleston (Wife) in{Holzemer 2008}.
“I’ve seen him stare for hours at a china set. And not a particularly valuable china set” Andra Eggleston (daughter) in{Holzemer 2008}.

New York Times critic Hilton Kramer and MoMA curator John Szarkowski famoulsy agreed that William Eggleston’s style was ‘perfect’. For the curator, Eggleson’s saturated colour was a ‘snapshot aesthetic’ taken to an extreme, perfectly attuned to a saturated imagespace and postmodern sensibility. To the critic, the images were indeed perfect: “perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly”.

The important point about their reading of the show in 1976 was that point of agreement: “perfectly banal”. Eggleston embraces the banal by working with an through objects. His modestly entitled “Guide”{Eggleston 2002} is no catalogue to the exhibition, monograph of an oeuvre or photobook. More like a child’s I Spy book or a throwaway pamphlet sold with an admission ticket, the Guide makes no pretence to be anything other than a tour of objects in Eggleston’s South.
An unfinished jigsaw in Tallahatchie County, Misssissippi; a creek in Summer, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in background; a shower or a child’s tricycle in Memphis – objects on Eggleston’s tour. The bus stops, and on your left…

The objects’ banality is not a value judgement so much as an ontological statement. The Guide is not random. Eggleston selects the objects carefully, but without prejudice. The Guide is democratic but never fully comprehensive. The objects admitted, drawn to the attention of the scopic tourist share an ontological banality but presence. Real but really withdrawn; sensual but never fully accessible.

Eggleston famously refuses discourses of interpretation or to answer questions. When someone says: “You often photograph food. What does food say to you?” he replies: “Food does exist sort of like cars exist”{WallToWallMedia 2009}. His is the photography of “if your meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. If he refuses or is unable to find the depth within his work, so are his objects. The green shower tiles and nozzles in Memphis may evoke Psycho or Auschwitz but they are not about Hitchcock, the gaze, evil. They are tiles… in a bathroom… in Memphis. The get wet. The flashlight reflects off them. As dye, ink or pixel traces in an image they may re-present but that is not their totality. They may connect with memory-objects, undergraduate Film Studies essay-objects or MoMA brand objects but those connections forged in the molten core of objects cannot exhaust the tiles or the image of the tiles. Eggleston’s grumpiness is an ontological statement – needless to say, were I to present that thesis to him, he would quite rightly dismiss it.

When one sees Eggleston work (admittedly in the presence of another scopic apparatus) {Holzemer 2008}, it is suffused with the everyday. Here there are no decisive moments snatched from the flow of time, no stalking and waiting nor even flanerie and chance encounters. Eggleston gets out of his car, stops, raises his camera before another object, clicks and walks quietly on. It is not just his age that means he moves and images slowly, elegantly, undramatically. When he says to the filmmaker: “Grab any masterpieces yet?” before bending slightly to imagine under a truck, it is another sly Eggleston dig. There are no masterpieces distinct from the banal. There are no decisive moments or perfect compositions to be captured or created. There is is just this… and this… and this.

His refusal to title or date his images is more than just a Zen refusal of labels – fingers pointing at the moon. It is a sensibility towards the ‘this’, a willingness towards objects, a positive statement about their withdrawal yet very real accessibility as sensual presences, understood in terms of objects not fields of relations or time.

When he rounds a corner and something catches his eye he does not dance around looking for the perfect position to take the image or shoot different frames or compositions. He raises his camera and… He says:

“I do have a personal discipline. I’ve only taken one picture of one thing. Not two. I would take more than one and get so confused later when I was trying to figure out which was the best frame, I said: ‘this is ridiculous, I’m just gonna take one that’s gonna be…”

Photographer Martin Parr says Eggleston’s vision is: “about photographing democratically and photographing nothing and making it interesting”. I would agree with the first part but argue with the second. Eggleston is not in the business of making nothing interesting. For him there is no ‘nothing’ only ‘something(s)’ and they are already interesting.