Friday, June 26, 2009

William Eggleston at the Corcoran

The William Eggleston exhibit at the Corcoran Museum opened on June 20th and is exceptional.

William Eggleston is from Memphis, TN. Many people have wondered if Eggleston's work is "Southern" or have asked him directly about the "meaning of the South". In an interview printed in Aperture by John Howell in 1999, in response to the "meaning of the South" query, Eggleston said "I don't know what they're looking for. I don't have any idea".

Howell continues to say that "Southern" always strikes Southerners as a condescending tag.

It's taken to mean "regional," as in local, anecdotal, folkloric and outrageously melodramatic - in other words, like those novels, films and plays full of enervated aristocrats, trampy women, and idiot men-children acting out in bizarre ways. It's as if solemn phrases about the drama of the decaying South soothe those puzzled by Eggleston's pictures ("What are they about?"), and those-mostly now in the past - outraged by the "banal" subject matter.

Eggleston gives his consistent philosophic answer: "You can take a good picture of anything. A bad one too," he adds, with a chuckle. He has said many times that the subjects of his pictures were simply an excuse to make photographs. "I want to make a picture that could stand on its own, regardless of what it was a picture of.

John Szarkowski isn't quite buying this. In the Introduction to the monograph William Eggleston's Guide, Szarkowski writes that the photos are about Eggleston's home, about his place.

...the pictures reproduced here are about the photographer's home, about his place, in both important meanings of that word. One might say about his identity.

If this is true, it does not mean that the pictures are not also simultaneously about photography, for the two issues are not supplementary but coextensive. Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is inevitably about photography, the container and the vehicle of all its meanings. Whatever a photographer's intuitions or intentions, they must be cut and shaped to fit the possibilities of his art. Thus if we see the pictures clearly as photographs, we will perhaps also see, or sense, something of their other, more private, willful, and anarchic meanings.

Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one's cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite. The world now contains more photographs than bricks, and they are, astonishingly, all different. Even the most servile of photographers has not yet managed to duplicate exactly an earlier work by a great and revered master.

Photos below are from the monograph William Eggleston's Guide
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, 2003

© William Eggleston

© William Eggleston

© William Eggleston


  1. Hey Matt. I caught this show when it was at the Whitney and quickly followed it up with "Eggleston in the Real World."

    Oddly enough, Micahel Almeyerda, the director found himself in a similar situation where he was unable to coax a satisfying answer about Effleston's process. Eggleston gave a similar, seemingly flippant response to the prodding, saying he just takes pictures.

    It is almost as if he was frustrated that his love of photography was being coopted by critics that wanted to somehow make a reductive statement that would explain how Eggleston revolutionized color photography.


  2. Thank you so much for writing a post on this exhibit! I went yesterday with Bo, and absolutely DIED with excitement. What a fantastic show! I need to go at least 5 more times... We should go, I would love to attend it with someone who's comment isn't "this looks like a picture selling something from Craigslist." :) I love Bo!