Critics’ Picks

Untitled (Memphis), 1973–1974.

Untitled (Memphis), 1973–1974.

New York

William Eggleston

Cheim & Read
23 E 67th St
January 8–February 21, 2004

Breeze past the vintage gelatin-silver prints; the main attraction in this show of Eggleston’s early black-and-white work is the thirty-minute film Selections from “Stranded in Canton,” 1974, which takes an unexpected trip through a southern demimonde. The tightly shot vignettes, which entirely lack Eggleston’s customary offhand perfection, focus on people making spectacles of themselves. A drunk drag queen croons to the bemusement of bar patrons while Wings and Zep play on the stereo. Two guys (regular but for the metal incisors one flashes) bite the heads off chickens in an alley. But the most gripping sequence stars a shaggy ringer for David Crosby who diverts, and occasionally transfixes, with singsong incantations on the perils and pleasures of “visiting Canton”—private slang for being wasted. Eggleston accompanies him to a shoebox recording studio, where a greasily handsome guitar player leads pretty girls and a bassist in song. After venturing outside for a pee break—during which he fellates a beer bottle and declares, sadly but ambiguously, “I’m tired of hearing all this shit about queers”—Crosby returns to the studio with a rant about a “rich Jew motherfucker” that’s punctuated by the guitarist’s brandishing a revolver. Their confrontation and the responses to it—blasé, incredulous, angry, too high to care—captures the claustrophobia of life on the margins in the days before they called it “niche culture.”