Monday, July 2, 2012

Eggleston's Chromes: an overdose?

A photograph from ”Chromes” © William Eggleston Artistic Trust / Steidl

William Eggleston (born 1939) is mainly known as an American photographer who has brought colour photography to new (art) heights from the 1960s and onwards. Not only by using particular printing techniques to really saturate the colours but also because he has developed a tradition of seeing and working that up until the 1960s had been almost trademarked by black and white photography (adherents): the mix between Walker Evans’ ambitious anthropological curiosity and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s poetically geometrical everyday snapshots and portraits.
In Eggleston’s world, predominantly the American South, there are cars, bars, gas stations, fields, supermarkets, fast food, lost souls, dreamy stares, signs, streets, reflections… All of which constitutes the essential everyday life for many of us, even if we’re far away from Eggleston’s Memphis. These hyper-American surroundings though, in which human beings almost act as ”extras” and only rarely as protagonists, have become Eggleston’s trademark. The distanced poetry of his images never cease to attract, surprise or fascinate.
In a recent book, ”Before Color” (Steidl 2010), a selection of Eggleston’s black and white photos from the late 50s and early 60s was presented, showing that the way of looking at things was already firmly established. In many ways, this early work can be seen as sketch work. When Eggleston found his epiphany in strong colours, there was simply no turning back.
But, as mentioned, the way of looking at things was already there. The flare, the detachment, the perspective had already been established. That’s one key to the Egglestonean mysteries. Another key is revealed in a funny story, presented in the film ”William Eggleston in the real world” (Michael Almereyda, USA, 2005) by his wife Rosa. Eggleston, ever the aesthete, complained to a friend that everything around him (referring to the surroundings) was so ugly and what was he going to take pictures of? The friend simply replied that he should focus on ”the ugly stuff”. And that Eggleston certainly has, diligently, to the extent that whatever was really ugly back then is now preserved as pieces of highly beautiful and lovingly deadpan Americana through his own creative perspective.
All of these seemingly commonplace environments, details and situations of the American South today function as both aesthetic and psychological time capsules, but also as something completely timeless.
Eggleston’s view seemingly never rests. It is apparent that he’s getting old – the recent book ”Paris” (Steidl, 2009), consisting of new images, plus his own drawings made while in Paris, is rather weak – but the magical moments of his eye-to-finger-to-camera are never far away. He never takes more than one exposure of each instantaneous attraction and seems happy to temporarily forget what he’s just taken a picture of. In many ways, this is exactly how human beings really perceive the world: in fragments, partially, in colour and of which most is immediately filtered out or forgotten. What remains are the valuable memories and the useful information. Just as in Eggleston’s photographs.
The most recent of Egglestonean tomes (a seemingly endless industry) is ”Chromes”, a monster of a boxed set containing three books. I’ll cut to the chase right away: ”Chromes” is very much the quintessential Eggleston presentation one needs to have. Where ”William Eggleston’s Guide” (1976) initially defined his work for a wider audience, it was still basically based on curator John Szarkowski’s selection. In the later ”Los Alamos” (images from the early 70s published in 2004) we can see a wider spectrum of the same era. And in many other volumes as well.
”Chromes” very much brings out more of the same, but in a far, far superior way. Of course much of this is based on personal preference or points of view, but I do think there’s a specific reason for the project as such. In volume one there’s an image of Eggleston himself sleeping on a bed. Ending the final volume is a similar picture, although taken when he has his eyes open. That kind of intrapersonal narrative is not something we’re used to in the apparently free-floating work that Eggleston usually presents. It’s as if he’s commenting on the value of this specific body of work (or, rather, era) as supreme. A waking up phase or trip.
And it truly is. Not only in the sense that there are a lot of images here that have never been shown before, but also because they’re so immensely rich in poetry, colour and detached amateur anthropology. In a great documentary on Eggleston and his work (”William Eggleston: Photographer”, by Rainer Holzemer, 2008), he recounts that someone asked him what he takes pictures of. The answer came (slowly) in two words: ”Life today”. And that really sums it up. Eggleston, the eternal stroller, armed with a great way of looking at things and a camera or two, is simply doing what he’s doing. Nothing more and nothing less. There’s something highly philosophical about the way he does it and the way it turns out, but I doubt that he’d ever see it that way himself.
Is it possible to overdose on William Eggleston? Maybe. ”Chromes” is a borderline experience. But there’s something so inexplicably poetic about his images that make them defy usual patterns of analysis. Although the view can be recognizable, there’s still always something new that surprises. ”The ugly stuff” has never been so beautiful as in Eggleston’s photographic communications. That, I guess, will be his legacy: a preservation of his outer and inner surroundings expressed in his very own way, for others to be amazed by.
The main thing is that his legacy is already alive. Not so much in the hordes of young photographers trying to re-create instead of re-seeing themselves, but in these very impressive volumes. I rarely go bananas over art books, but I really did when I got my hands on ”Chromes”. It’s all beautifully done in every possible way, but more important is that there has simply never been a more relevant or beautiful selection of Eggleston’s work in one batch, like here. ”Chromes”  contains a master at work, waking up to the possibilities of not only using saturated colour photography as a means of expression but also of a loose, cool, detached, désinvolture lifestyle as a means of seeing and understanding what’s really there around you. ”Life today”. Camera optional.

William Eggleston: Chromes
Steidl, 2011. Three books in slip case, 728 pages

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