Gini Alhadeff

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Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston: Los Alamos an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York City and three books by Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston

Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston:

Los Alamos an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York City, Fe­bru­ary 14–May 28, 2018

Elec­tion Eve by Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston, with a pref­ace by Lloyd Fon­vielle. Steidl, 184 pp., $85.00

Por­traits by Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston, edited by Phillip Prodger, with an ap­pre­ci­a­tion by Sofia Cop­pola. Yale Univer­sity Press, 184 pp., $50.00

The Demo­cratic For­est by Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston, edited by Mark Hol­born and Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston III, and with an in­tro­duc­tion by Eu­dora Welty. Steidl, ten vol­umes, 1,328 pp., $600.00

Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston has imag­ined that he shoots pho­to­graphs from the van­tage point of an in­sect, a baby, or a ri­fle—any­thing to avoid feel­ing as if he were do­ing it with his own eyes or, God for­bid, tak­ing a pic­ture that looks like one he might have al­ready taken:

Hu­mans make pic­tures which tend to be about five feet above the ground look­ing out hor­i­zon­tally. I like very fast fly­ing in­sects mov­ing all over and I won­der what their view is from mo­ment to mo­ment. I have made a few pic­tures which show that phys­i­cal view­point.

In the fall of 1976, shortly be­fore Jimmy Carter was elected pres­i­dent, Eg­gle­ston drove to Plains, Ge­or­gia, on as­sign­ment for Rolling Stone. He had met Andy Warhol and, through him, Warhol’s su­per­star Viva, with whom he lived for a time at the Chelsea Ho­tel and who re­mains a close friend. She was with him when he drove from Mis­sis­sippi to Plains shoot­ing what be­came his book Elec­tion Eve (1977, re­cently reis­sued). Ac­cord­ing to Mark Hol­born, in his 1991 pref­ace to Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston, An­cient and Mod­ern, the most search­ing and com­plete anal­y­sis of Eg­gle­ston’s work, it was on this trip that he stopped us­ing the cam­era’s viewfinder and be­gan to shoot as if he were fir­ing a shot­gun. In Eg­gle­ston’s own words:

It makes you much freer, so you can hold the cam­era up in the air as if you were ten feet tall. You end up look­ing more in­tensely as you walk around. When it is time for you to make the pho­to­graph, it’s all ready for you. Un­like a ri­fle, where you care­fully aim fol­low­ing a dot or a scope, with a shot­gun it’s done with feel. You don’t look down the bar­rel and line things up. With a fluid move­ment your body fol­lows a mov­ing tar­get and the gun keeps mov­ing af­ter the shot with what is known as “fol­low through.” That be­comes sub­con­scious. Good shoot­ing in­struc­tors will en­cour­age you to fol­low through. It’s the op­po­site of the ra­tio­nal method. When I got the prints from this method, they looked like shot­gun pic­tures.

In his pho­to­graphs Eg­gle­ston had al­ready been putting into prac­tice “the idea that one could,” as he said in his ten-vol­ume The Demo­cratic For­est, “treat the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial and an anony­mous street cor­ner with the same amount of care, and that the re­sult­ing two pic­tures would be equal.” Be­tween 1965 and 1974 he and the cu­ra­tor Wal­ter Hopps, once de­scribed in The New York Times as “the most gifted mu­seum man on the West Coast... pos­si­bly in the na­tion,” drove to­gether from Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, to Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia, with Eg­gle­ston tak­ing pho­to­graphs and Hopps at the wheel. Some­times they were joined by Den­nis Hop­per. Hopps re­called Eg­gle­ston say­ing, as they drove past the Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory in New Mex­ico, the once-se­cret site of the Man­hat­tan Project, “You know, I’d like to have a se­cret lab like that.” Hence the name of the se­ries “Los Alamos,” which in­cludes over two thou­sand pic­tures, from which the sev­enty-five stun­ning dye-trans­fer prints cur­rently on view at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art were cho­sen.

“Los

Alamos” in­cludes some of Eg­gle­ston’s best-known images. En Route

to New Or­leans (1971–1974) is one of his dreami­est: the rounded edges of an air­plane win­dow, a fold-up ta­ble with a glass of Coca-Cola or bour­bon on ice, a hand lazily poised over the straw in the glass, a view of white clouds in a blue sky, the rough fab­ric of the back of the seat in the next row. The shadow of the plas­tic glass and its am­ber-col­ored con­tents are cast on the ta­ble, framed by the car­toon­ish, paw-like shadow of the hand.

The most Eg­gle­sto­nian images are those in which col­ors col­lude to make some­thing vis­ually ar­rest­ing out of very lit­tle, such as a May­tag wash­ing ma­chine with a sweater laid out to dry on a towel on top of it (Mem­phis, 1971–1974.) A red box casts a black shadow on the tiled wall be­hind it, and the white, red, and black are also in the jacquard pat­tern of the sweater, whose ribs match the dark lines in the grid of the ap­pli­ance’s con­trol panel. In Cal­i­for­nia (1971–1974) he cap­tures the im­pro­vi­sa­tion that a milky spill per­forms on black as­phalt, with a slice of a chrome-trimmed mocha-and-cream 1960s Cadil­lac lan­guorously stretched over a third of the frame.

Cars—car wrecks, too—skies, and the color red have been some of Eg­gle­ston’s great sub­jects, along with gas sta­tions, neon signs, park­ing lots, and din­ers, but he is at his best when he uses color to poignantly por­tray scenes that are os­ten­si­bly far from “cam­era-ready”: a white 1960s tele­phone (Un­ti­tled [White Phone and Vacuum Cleaner], 1965–19741), for in­stance, in a room that seems to have just been emp­tied of peo­ple, fur­ni­ture, and be­long­ings ex­cept for the hose of a vacuum cleaner and a loop­ing tan­gle of white wires on the floor by part of a wall, with a per­fo­rated square from which a sin­gle wire emerges, al­most at the cen­ter of the frame, sud­denly draw­ing at­ten­tion to it­self. This is Eg­gle­ston’s “se­cret lab,” where un­pre­pos­sess­ing things are made into pic­to­rial mas­ter­pieces.

In Louisiana (1971–1974), a blue Gen­eral Elec­tric logo on a torn piece of pa­per, a dis­carded Burger King pa­per cup, two empty cans, a very rusty chain wound around a thick wooden pole and se­cured to the back of an an­cient aqua­green Chevy—which has red rear lights and whose bumper and wing mo­tif are lined in chrome—and a Louisiana li­cense plate above cracked, lit­ter-strewn pave­ment make for a daz­zling still life. And in Mem­phis (1971–1974), Eg­gle­ston cap­tured the top of a pass­ing hearse, with large red flow­ers pressed against one of its win­dows, a metal pot on the cream-col­ored roof con­tain­ing an ar­range­ment of dried trop­i­cal flow­ers and feath­ers dyed baby blue and acid green, as well as two pil­lows— one lilac, the other checked white and red—keep­ing the ar­range­ment from top­pling off the roof.

Color film is slow: that images like these are in fo­cus is a tech­ni­cal feat. Ac­cord­ing to Adam Bar­tos, who be­longs to a younger gen­er­a­tion of color pho­tog­ra­phers that in­cludes Mitch Epstein and Philip-Lorca diCor­cia, “Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand about the vir­tu­os­ity of those pic­tures. They look like snap­shots. But that’s not how it was, or is— tech­ni­cally, he knew ex­actly what he was do­ing. That’s re­ally ge­nius.”

W il­liam Eg­gle­ston was born in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, in 1939. His fa­ther, a plan­ta­tion owner, died in World War II, and Bill grew up with his grand­par­ents and mother in Sum­ner County, Ten­nessee. Eg­gle­ston’s cousin Maude Schuyler Clay, who is also a pho­tog­ra­pher, re­mem­bers him as “an in­tro­vert with an in­ter­est in elec­tron­ics... who built a set of six-foot-high speak­ers and drove around town in a Fer­rari.”2 His mother called him “very bril­liant, very strange.” He had asthma as a boy and spent most of his time in­doors play­ing the pi­ano, and he bugged his en­tire fam­ily with mi­cro­phones hid­den through­out the house, per­haps in an at­tempt to pre­serve ev­ery­thing they said. In col­lege he had an aver­sion to tests and re­fused to take them, talk­ing his dean into let­ting him con­tinue to study.

1Eg­gle­ston hates giv­ing his pic­tures ti­tles, and has even said that pho­to­graphs have noth­ing to do with words.

2Mary Warner, “The Weight of Home,” The Bit­ter South­erner, Jan­uary 2014.

In 1964 Eg­gle­ston mar­ried Rosa Kate Dos­sett, a child­hood friend who had also grown up on a plan­ta­tion. “The hand­some cou­ple cut a strik­ing fig­ure across the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, and in the early days they were known for their match­ing blue Cadil­lacs,” a lo­cal chron­i­cle states. Eg­gle­ston pho­tographed Rosa in 1973, ly­ing on a bed, wrapped in a flow­ery yel­low-and-white bed­spread, from which only her face, hands, and two shapely legs emerge. The bed is neatly made be­neath her and the light is on in the closet, as though she’d been about to dress. Twelve pairs of pumps hang on the closet door be­hind her in a bright-yel­low can­vas shoe rack, with a cou­ple of ties hang­ing be­side them, while on a small ta­ble, with some­thing re­sem­bling a baby bot­tle on top of it, a television broad­casts black-and­white static. Eg­gle­ston’s por­traits—like the one of a sales­man sit­ting de­spon­dently on the edge of his bed in a mo­tel, his rigid steel-rimmed suit­case opened flat on a desk, or the one of a frail, thin wo­man on an out­door sofa—al­ways look like movie stills, and you feel you’ve seen the movie. It’s color that sets the scene, com­pels you to look—some­thing has hap­pened, or is about to hap­pen. It is not sur­pris­ing that Eg­gle­ston’s cin­e­matic painter­li­ness has long been a fa­vorite of film di­rec­tors such as Sofia Cop­pola (who, in Eg­gle­ston’s Por­traits, notes her love for his pho­to­graph of a young wo­man ly­ing on the ground in a flow­ery dress, her red hair spread about her shoul­ders), Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, and the Coen broth­ers. Eg­gle­ston re­mem­bered that when he was a child, his mother had given him books on Ge­orges Rouault and Gior­gio de Chirico. He stud­ied paint­ing at the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi for five years, but Henri Cartier-Bres­son’s The De­ci­sive Mo­ment made a great im­pres­sion on him, and he took up pho­tog­ra­phy, im­mers­ing him­self in all the tech­ni­cal man­u­als he could find. A vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Mis­sis­sippi, the New York artist Tom Young, gave him the best ad­vice of his life, as Rosa re­calls in the BBC doc­u­men­tary Imag­ine: “Bill at one time said to his great, highly re­spected friend [Young], ‘Well, what am I gonna pho­to­graph? Ev­ery­thing around here is so ugly!’ And our friend said, ‘Pho­to­graph the ugly stuff.’” An­other piece of ad­vice came from a fel­low pho­tog­ra­pher: “Garry Wino­grand told me, ‘Bill, you can take a good pho­to­graph of any­thing,’ and that’s al­ways stuck with me.”

Eg­gle­ston had started with black-and­white, but he had a friend who had a night job at a pho­tog­ra­phy lab that pro­cessed snap­shots and that Eg­gle­ston would visit:

I started look­ing at these pic­tures com­ing out—they’d come out in a long rib­bon—and al­though most of them were ac­ci­dents, some were ab­so­lutely beautiful. So I started spend­ing all night look­ing at these rib­bons of pic­tures.

I was par­tic­u­larly struck by a pic­ture of a guy who worked for a gro­cery store, push­ing a shop­ping cart out in the late-af­ter­noon sun—that one re­ally stuck in my mind. I started day­dream­ing about tak­ing a par­tic­u­lar kind of pic­ture, be­cause I fig­ured if am­a­teurs work­ing with cheap cam­eras could do this, I could use good cam­eras and re­ally come up with some­thing.3

The first color pic­ture Eg­gle­ston shot (Mem­phis, 1965) was of a young man in a short-sleeved shirt push­ing a train of shop­ping carts. He has red­dish-blond hair thick with gel, a duck­tail, is no older than twenty-two, Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston: En Route to New Or­leans, circa 1971–1974 and ap­pears to be day­dream­ing. Eg­gle­ston said:

One night I stayed up fig­ur­ing out what I was go­ing to do the next day, which was to go to the big su­per­mar­ket down the street . . . . It seemed like a good place to try things out. I had this new ex­po­sure sys­tem in mind, of over­ex­pos­ing the film so all the col­ors would be there, and by God it all worked.

His sec­ond in­no­va­tive for­mal de­ci­sion was to have the images printed us­ing the dye-trans­fer method, an old process us­ing cyan, yel­low, and ma­genta screens to de­liver deep sat­u­ra­tion and col­ors that never faded. He dis­cov­ered the process through a lab in Chicago while he was teach­ing at Har­vard in the early 1970s. Listed as “the ul­ti­mate print,” it was also the most ex­pen­sive, cost­ing $1,000 for the first one. Un­like Wino­grand, Richard Ave­don, Irv­ing Penn, or Tod Pa­pa­george, Eg­gle­ston taught only briefly and rarely worked for com­mer­cial mag­a­zines. But he al­ways seemed to have enough money to make prints of prac­ti­cally ev­ery pic­ture he took, though he quickly de­cided he would take just one photo of

3Kris­tine McKenna, “In Con­ver­sa­tion with Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston,” in For Now (Twin Palms, 2010). a sub­ject, “never two.” (The ini­tal prints from the “Los Alamos” se­ries were funded by a Guggen­heim grant.) Dye trans­fer has now been su­per­seded by inkjet print­ing. Eg­gle­ston’s thirty-six 60 x 44–inch pig­ment prints, which sold at Christie’s for al­most $6 mil­lion in 2012 (a print of a tri­cy­cle sold for $578,000), were made from trans­paren­cies and scanned elec­tron­i­cally.

In 1974, at the same time that he was shoot­ing the “Los Alamos” se­ries, and af­ter Warhol in­tro­duced him to the Sony Porta-Pak video cam­era, Eg­gle­ston made Stranded in Can­ton, a thirty-hour black-and-white video of which a sev­enty-seven-minute ver­sion ex­ists. He re­placed the crude zoom lens that came with the cam­era with the kind of lens used on 16mm film cam­eras and mod­i­fied it to cap­ture in­frared light. Eg­gle­ston said, “I would start and stop when I thought it was the right time.” He shot “in a club where you could barely see any­thing,” the cam­era “reg­is­ter­ing the heat more than re­flected light.” The film be­gins like a home movie, with ten­der shots of two of his chil­dren, con­tin­ues mostly in sit­u­a­tions Wal­ter Hopps once de­scribed as “a stu­pe­fac­tion night in Mem­phis,” and has lit­tle to do with Can­ton. One char­ac­ter says, “Ev­ery­one in their life in their own way they have all been stranded in Can­ton.”

His night­club por­traits col­lected in the book 5 x 7 were taken at the same time. Eg­gle­ston said of that se­ries:

I was think­ing sim­ply of how to cap­ture these kinds of mo­ments and images, with the de­gree of def­i­ni­tion. Mainly we were in this place that’s no longer in busi­ness—TGI Fri­day’s. The pic­tures were mostly taken around three in the morn­ing, when ev­ery­body was loos­ened up, and I was, too. I was ac­tu­ally very straight my­self, but there were peo­ple who had had quite a few.

Bar­tos says, “To go into a bar at night with a 5 x 7 cam­era is an act of pho­to­graphic sui­cide. He could have done it with a flash and a lit­tle neg­a­tive. But then you wouldn’t see ev­ery pore. They’re as sharp as Ave­don pho­to­graphs and that was the only way to do that.”

While study­ing pho­tog­ra­phy at the Pratt In­sti­tute in Brook­lyn in the early 1970s we had it dinned into us, sub­lim­i­nally as it was never ex­plic­itly men­tioned, that color was for am­a­teurs, fam­ily snap­shots, or crass com­mer­cial­ism. Cartier-Bres­son, one of Eg­gle­ston’s he­roes, said, “Color de­lights only sales­men and mag­a­zines.” And Walker Evans, Eg­gle­ston’s other hero, fa­mously stated, though he later changed his mind, “There are four sim­ple words for the mat­ter, which must be whis­pered: color pho­tog­ra­phy is vul­gar.” We were learn­ing to de­velop and print black-and-white, and the mas­ters whose work we looked at used only that medium.

But my first job was at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, and I re­call the open­ing of Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston’s show “The Guide” in 1976. John Szarkowski was the al­ready leg­endary head of the Depart­ment of Pho­tog­ra­phy; at school we had closely stud­ied his book on the his­tory of pho­tog­ra­phy, Look­ing at Pho­to­graphs. He had hardly ever shown color pho­to­graphs, much less de­voted a cat­a­log and an en­tire show to them. When Eg­gle­ston brought him his work, Szarkowski was won over by it right away. But it took him eight years to raise enough funds and get the sup­port nec­es­sary within the mu­seum to mount a show that to him marked “the be­gin­ning of mod­ern color pho­tog­ra­phy.” He con­sid­ered pre­vi­ous at­tempts in that medium to have been “form­less or pretty,” and “while edit­ing di­rectly from life, pho­tog­ra­phers have found it too dif­fi­cult to see si­mul­ta­ne­ously both the blue and the sky.”

“The Guide” (the ti­tle was in­spired by Miche­lin guides), which Szarkowski con­sid­ered a “very per­sonal col­lec­tion of images,” con­tained the sev­en­ty­five pho­to­graphs Szarkowski and Eg­gle­ston had cho­sen af­ter pro­ject­ing over two thou­sand trans­paren­cies onto a wall (Eg­gle­ston, who has an aver­sion to edit­ing, ad­mits that Szarkowski chose most of them). It is a primer on how to look at things you’re about to over­look—the in­side of an oven, an old blue pick-up truck parked be­hind a hor­i­zon­tal wis­te­ria vine, a green shower stall, part of a con­crete stair­way be­tween two white walls, a dog lap­ping wa­ter from a pud­dle. Szarkowski wrote in the in­tro­duc­tion, “As pic­tures... these seem to me per­fect.” But the re­cep­tion of Eg­gle­ston’s work was hos­tile. The New York Times critic Hil­ton Kramer thought the pic­tures “per­fectly bor­ing.” Ansel Adams sent Szarkowski a let­ter of in­dig­na­tion. The show was ac­cused of “glossy pre­ten­sion” and was said to be “the most hated show of the year.”

Time is a great healer of re­ac­tionary views in art. In pho­tog­ra­phy’s jour­ney from doc­u­men­ta­tion to art, color was the log­i­cal next step. Many of the mas­ters of the black-and-white medium had made a virtue of ne­ces­sity—stick­ing to the gray scale and print­ing their own images to achieve the max­i­mum de­sired ef­fect. Eg­gle­ston wiped away the need for both those virtues by send­ing his pho­to­graphs out to be printed by labs and us­ing the most lus­cious color avail­able. This ap­pro­pri­a­tion of some of the aes­thet­ics and tech­niques of ad­ver­tis­ing was in keep­ing with Pop Art—with Warhol and James Rosen­quist pri­mar­ily. A younger gen­er­a­tion of pho­tog­ra­phers had be­gun to work in color, and Eg­gle­ston was their model. The night of the open­ing of his cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum, Eg­gle­ston, nat­tily dressed in a slim black suit with a silk bow tie worn un­tied around his white shirt col­lar and black patent-leather shoes, told me that he still keeps a harp­si­chord, which needs to be fixed, and a pi­ano at the big house that he gave up liv­ing in af­ter his wife Rosa died in 2015. “But I still go there of­ten,” he said. “To see what’s go­ing on?” I asked. “There’s noth­ing go­ing on there,” he said. In Plains, Ge­or­gia, Eg­gle­ston failed to find Jimmy Carter at home, and in his pic­tures there is never any sign of an “elec­tion.” It was as though he wished to in­ves­ti­gate how a peanut field felt about Carter be­com­ing pres­i­dent. Or how lit­tle a tree might care about the out­come of the elec­tions.

Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston: Santa Mon­ica, circa 1974

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