William Eggleston: Portraits

June 1, 2017
Untitled 1969-70 (the artist's uncle, Adyn Schuyler Senior, with assistant and driver, Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Sumner, Mississippi)
Untitled 1969-70 (the artist's uncle, Adyn Schuyler Senior, with assistant and driver, Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Sumner, Mississippi)

In By the Ways, an off-beat documentary about William Eggleston, there is a sequence in which the photographer answers questions from an unseen German interviewer. Straining after profundity the interviewer asks: “Do you understand your work as an expression of your existence?”

There’s an agonising pause, then a response in Eggleston’s southern drawl: “Probably.”

Eggleston (b.1939), is the interview subject every journalist dreads. He doesn’t try to be clever or antagonistic, he simply weighs each question on its merits
and gives the most succinct reply. This might be: “I don’t know,” or “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Interviewers habitually try and get their subjects to talk about things they hadn’t previously thought about, but with Eggleston if he didn’t think about something at the time he sees little point in thinking about it now. The moment – Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” – has passed, and only the photo remains.

Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and still lives there, but dislikes being called a “southern photographer”. In fact he dislikes all labels. The unsettling directness of his interview style is also the keynote of his work. An admirer of Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston practises an extreme version of the Frenchman’s method. By the time he brings the camera to his eye he has already had his decisive moment. He may not even bother to look through the view finder.

Eggleston says he rarely photographs anything twice, and doesn’t have any favourite photos. In his oeuvre every scene, object and person is treated with an ideal equivalence. He once described his work as a “democratic forest”, a term that provides the title for a 10 volume publication featuring more than 1,000 images.

William Eggleston: Portraits, at the National Gallery of Victoria, brings together a broad cross-section of Eggleston’s photographs of people, in both black-and-white and colour, mostly from the 1960s and 70s. The show includes quick snapshots of anonymous figures in the street and posed portraits. But even at his most conventional, as in the portraits of men and woman from 1973-74 (cats. 42,43,45,46), the subjects never look us in the eye. They seem distracted, as if Eggleston had asked them to pose, then snapped the shutter when they relaxed.

Untitled 1973-74

Untitled 1973-74

Many of his portraits are exercises in eye-popping colour, such as a 1975 picture of a woman in a bright yellow dress standing in front of a sky-blue building with a red-and-white striped awning (cat. 52); or the 1969-71 image of a woman in a dark blue dress sitting on a piece of yellow-painted concrete (cat.53).

Untitled c.1975

Untitled c.1975

Eggleston is arguably the most famous colour photographer of all time. His 1976 survey at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, stirred up a tempest of indignation over the banality of the subject matter and the use of strong, drenching colour. Received wisdom was that colour was only fit for advertisements whereas serious photography was always black-and-white.

Eggleston weathered the storm and has gone on to be a leading influence on contemporary art photographers such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller, although this is a bit like being Dr. Frankenstein. Eggleston was accused of being boring and arbitrary in 1976, but many of those abused images have become classics. In the current survey of Tillmans’s work at Tate Modern photos of every description are plastered across the walls in the most anarchic manner, with hardly a memorable composition. Yet this shapeless stuff is no longer reviled by the critics – it’s the height of fashion.

To look at the hostility Eggleston generated in 1976 and at the adulation showered on Tillmans today, is to chart the decline of taste. Eggleston’s detractors believed in aesthetic standards that he appeared to transgress. Tillmans’s fans seem to have few values apart from what the media tells them is cool. Over the years viewers have learned to appreciate Eggleston as an artist rather an iconoclast. In time they may grow tired of the empty spectacle Tillmans provides.

To look at Eggleston alongside those he has inspired is to see a surprisingly old-fashioned artist. No matter how instinctive his approach or how trivial his subjects, Eggleston believes in the centrality of composition. His images are perfectly self-contained. They don’t depend on a splashy, messy installation or a political stance.

Eggleston has never shown the vaguest interest in politics but he is connected to the minutiae of the world in a way a Zen sage might envy. The closest he comes to a political statement is a famous double portrait of his uncle, Adyn Schuyler, and his uncle’s driver, Jasper Staples (cat.77, 1969-70). Schuyler is white, Staples black, but both men adopt identical poses. It could be interpreted as a comment on race relations and inequality in the south, but for Eggleston it was just a lucky shot.

Eggleston’s heavy drinking and laid-back attitude has given him a reputation for decadence, but he is also an accomplished pianist with a passion for J.S.Bach. He hardly seems to recognise the boundaries that most of us see as keys to our identity.

In the catalogue he says: “For some reason I’ve never felt like photographing, to any extent, friends and family,” but this exhibition is full of images of his wife and kids and friends. He doesn’t seem to be joking or lying, it’s simply that all those pictures don’t register as family photos, with the usual sentimental associations.

When Eggleston photographs his wife lying in bed (cat. 91, 1973); his son standing by the side of the road (cat. 90, 1973 ); or his daughter with stripes painted on her face (cat. 97, c.1984), this is part of his work, not his private life. The angry, tearful face of a former girlfriend goes into the back catalogue, regardless of what he might have done to cause this episode (cat. 94, tactfully not dated).

Untitled 1973 (The artist's wife, Rosa)

Untitled 1973 (The artist’s wife, Rosa)

Untitled 1973 (William Eggleston III)

Untitled 1973 (William Eggleston III)

There’s something a little chilling in a personality that is able to step outside the stream of life and see everything as subject matter. One thinks of Monet painting his dead wife and realising to his horror that he had become fascinated by the play of colours on her face. It dramatises the idea of artistic achievement as a Faustian bargain, a deal with the Devil. Eggleston insists on being seen as a citizen of the world, but there’s a lot of Southern Gothic in his work. His ideal detachment may diminish his humanity but also it makes him an artist of rare distinction.

William Eggleston Portraits
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Until 18 June

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June, 2017