Bill Henson, to be reviewed here next week, and William Eggleston are both part of the NGV’s Festival of Photography, but to go from one exhibition to the other — even with an interval of an hour or two in between — is a remarkable contrast. Henson’s work has a density and layering that are rather like Proust’s writing, where everything is seen through the filter of memory and interwoven by analogy and metaphor with other strands of experience. Eggleston’s photographs, on the other hand, are almost startling in their deliberate banality. Not only are they, at first sight, images of ugly and trivial things, they also seem to revel in randomness and disconnection. Why are we looking up at a red ceiling with a bare light bulb, or at an abandoned child’s tricycle? Why are we looking at them, in each of these cases, from such strange levels and angles? What is our implicit involvement with these things?
Then we realise that the banality and the randomness raise questions, and that the seemingly stranded objects also contain an implicit narrative charge. A trail of motor oil leaks from an old car; tools are left in the middle of a job; long perspectives evoke what is beyond or behind what we are seeing. This is not to say our first impression of banality is wrong, just that Eggleston hints at a chasm of the unknown behind each of these ostensibly ordinary things.
Unlike Henson again, Eggleston does not photograph places or sites that are either beautiful or interesting in themselves. He largely restricts himself to his home town of Memphis, Tennessee, a city with very little to recommend it culturally or aesthetically, apart from its contribution to American popular music. In his pictures, it seems like a place where the human spirit has all but suffocated in a desert of material and spiritual poverty.
Eggleston’s perspective on this world is that of insider and outsider at once, for although he grew up here, he came from a wealthy family and was well educated. When he began to take pictures — he was entirely self-taught — his wife recalls him saying: “What am I going to photograph around here? Everything is so ugly.” And a friend, with oracular insight, replied: “Photograph the ugly stuff.” His adoption of colour, previously shunned by serious art photographers, was a logical corollary. For here there were no handsome subjects, no motifs with interesting structures that could benefit from black-and-white treatment. There were small and mean motifs whose smallness and meanness were better captured in all their charmless, literal, mass-produced colouring.
And yet, just as an author cannot evoke boredom by writing in a boring manner, or incoherence by writing incoherently, the photographer of the banal must be anything but banal in his own art. Not surprisingly, Eggleston was uninterested in photojournalism, for his subjects were not important people, remarkable places or newsworthy events. Instead he found inspiration in Henri Cartier-Bresson, who looked for telling moments in everyday life.
Eggleston not only looks for such moments but, unlike most other photographers, limits himself to a single shot of each subject. Where others will print a contact sheet, select the most successful frame and then enlarge it, Eggleston takes a multitude of single and distinct images. It is a rigorous discipline to adopt, and at the same time it helps give each of his pictures a spontaneous and unique quality ideally suited to capturing the impression of randomness.
Eggleston’s single shot evokes the unplanned and adventitious encounter with his motif, but behind the spontaneity and informality is an unerring sense of composition. His two most distinctive gifts, indeed, are to discover potentially significant motifs where most of us would see only the visual equivalent of meaningless noise, and to find the most effective composition of the subject almost instantly.
Footage of Eggleston at work — for example in the excellent BBC documentary The Colourful Mr Eggleston (2009) — shows him often taking a picture more quickly and seemingly casually than an amateur. Clearly he sees and mentally constructs the composition he wants even before he raises the camera to his eye, and is so attuned to his instrument that he merely has to look through the viewfinder to confirm that the framing is right.
This ability to work not only fast but lightly, effortlessly and thus inconspicuously must give him an advantage in taking photographs of human subjects, whether the individual is posing or caught unawares. His picture of a young man eating a burger (1965-68), for example, is swiftly and yet definitively captured.
The strange and slightly disturbing picture of a man who looks like a commercial traveller sitting on the edge of a hotel bed (1971) is clearly posed, but taken so quickly that the pose has not had time to turn wooden. And yet the figure is perfectly composed within the invisible grid of pictorial space: the back of his neck and the level of the bed are both almost exactly on the golden section of width and height respectively.
Eggleston is not a portrait photographer, however, but rather a photographer who often included people in his pictures of the everyday world around him, and so on strict criteria of genre not all of the pictures gathered in this ex-
Untitled snapshots by William Eggleston, main picture c 1965-69; below left, 1965-68; and the artist’s uncle Adyn Schuyler Sr with assistant and driver Jasper Staples in Cassidy Bayou, Sumner, Mississippi, 1969-70