SIN­GU­LAR MO­MENTS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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