It’s hard to justify to nonbelievers what makes William Eggleston’s work so resonant. In fact, there were plenty of people who hated it 1976, when color photography was still frowned upon, and I’m sure there are plenty who hate it now. Notwithstanding his popularity in the world of galleries, and the art press, his work is paradoxically democratic and elitist. He dares you to say, “I don’t see what the big deal is, I could do that.” He is everything that people outside the art community hate about art, and the subjective appreciation of one over the other. A good example of this is Eggleston’s picture of the inside of a freezer or the underside of a bed, or the fact that he doesn’t give audacious titles to his images. He just does what he does and dares the world to deny it.
While you can look at a photo like Untitled 1965, (the one with the kid pushing grocery carts), and figure out what makes you feel warm and fuzzy about it (the golden tinged nostalgia of 50’s era America, in brilliant color), there are plenty of others that to most people seem like you handed a disposable camera to some kid and sent them out in the neighborhood to take pictures of things they found interesting. Often times, body parts are cut off at the margins, and mundane objects like a haphazardly placed axe, or Christmas lights strung around a pole in a parking lot are the chosen subject matter. Everything you are taught to do, is thrown out the window, and composition and color take prominence over all else. I can see why the critics were almost unanimous in their scorn for his first MoMA exhibition, and the only thing that surprises me, is that he somehow survived the battering and kept going. It’s a commentary on the absurdity of the human condition that in the early days, he was battling the very same people who are his greatest champions today.
I won’t tell you that you should care about William Eggleston, you either like his work or you don’t. But if you are a photographer, I can tell you that it’s worth your time to find out. As a resident of the South, it’s easy for me to identify with the familiar landscapes that are represented in Egg’s photos, and his embrace of the mundane. Eggleston is also an interesting character, whose life seems to be a work of art all it’s own. For further study, his film “Stranded in Canton” is a weird, wild ride that gives us a glimpse of his world and the underground characters that were part of his social circle.
Eggleston blazed a path and revolutionized modern photography by embracing and uplifting the mundane and everyday, and I still haven’t seen anybody who does what he does any better. I think of him as being out of the same mold as a William Burroughs or Henry Miller. A man ahead of his time who is willing to bear the scrutiny of critics in pursuit of his own unique passion. He stands out as a fearless, debauched weirdo from Mississippi, shooting roll after roll in empty parking lots and dusty second hand stores. Now that he’s written about and praised so profusely, he probably still doesn’t give a damn whether he is considered an artist, and I’m sure he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about each and every frame he’s shot over his decades long career. My guess is that he probably would have done the same had he never been recognized, and that is something that is truly admirable, whether you like his pictures or not.