PRINT November 1976

How to Mystify Color Photography

HAD THEY BEEN SHOWN in a gallery, William Eggleston’s color photographs would not have raised special problems. Nowadays it’s quite normal that dealers imagine photos of all kinds to be art, worth a try in an increasingly sporty market. Eggleston’s images—dye transfer prints that have been made from slides—represent a large genre whose trademark is the very averageness of its subjects. We are not certain what these pictures tell us of suburban life around Memphis and northern Mississippi, circa 1970, but they describe it unexceptionally well. They are neither quite casual nor overtly tendentious. They have the snapshotter’s typical focus on a center of interest, an object or a person, but they exhibit a bit more range in the trivialities they permit. While in theory a jigsaw puzzle (uncompleted), or the image of a ham dinner may turn up in the family carousel, Eggleston appears to know they are the sort of thing most likely to bore the family, and therefore solicit our interest by default. On the other hand, an old man sitting on the bed for his portrait holds a large, shiny revolver; but God forbid we should be encouraged to draw any specious conclusions, say, about Mississippi violence. Well, such images, fragments as are all photos, are not obliged to spell out meanings if the photographer doesn’t want them to. And Eggleston’s dwell with such conventional uninsistence on this fact that they’re maddening, in a low-level modish way.

But the experiences to be gotten from photos, or rather the expectations they generate, are entirely affected by the context in which they are seen. Come upon in a camera club or photo class, Eggleston’s works would seem to display the normal peculiarities of their medium, eliciting a random bliss here, yawns there. There would have been no reason to discuss them. But they were presented as a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. They have, therefore, been exposed to a large public by a very prestigious institution. Nominally, such exposure imposes the greatest possible social weight on the scale of artistic significance, and one wonders why a previously unknown and not conspicuously talented photographer is thought to deserve this attention.

MoMA has every right now, as it did in the past, to sponsor vernacular things. These may well have esthetic merits no less than works of art have social allusions, and the museum needs only to clarify its emphasis. In the area of photography, one remembers MoMA’s “One-Eyed Dicks,” a continuously projected film of still photographs taken by triggered, automatic cameras during bank robberies, 1970, and “From The Picture Press,” 1973. On both occasions the official hope was to expand the public’s consciousness of (non-art) photo traditions.

In practice, though, the bank photos were considered “neutral,” and there were no wall captions for the news pictures. The museum simply imposed its context on the original ones. One noticed the general avoidance of information that would explain how these images guarded property and manipulated news: surely the most interesting things about them. These factors, to be sure, concern only the historical values of the material and its effect on people’s lives, whereas the museum wanted us to see them as objects appropriate for detached contemplation, the stuff of poetry unmoored in time. Photo “poetry” can be appreciated but not analyzed; and as it’s deceiving and fictive, it cannot be instrumental in any social purpose. (!) Eggleston makes free with vernacular idiom, but is definitely not seen to practice it. And so the show is pure esthetics, with the gloves off. Indeed, John Szarkowski writes that these pictures seem to him “perfect,” that they’re “irreducible surrogates for the experience they pretend [my italics] to record.”

Poor fellow! You turn to the essay written on him by the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, and you discover that Eggleston has been mystified practically out of existence. MoMA waits years for the funding of its first book devoted to a color photographer (William Eggleston’s Guide), and what is the public told of the individual so elaborately honored? That he’s 37, born in Memphis, has gotten through local high schools, attended but apparently not graduated from Vanderbilt and “Ole Miss,” and discovered the work of Cartier-Bresson in 1962. Oh yes, he has said that his pictures were based compositionally on the Confederate flag. As any kind of backgrounding on an important artist, this is, of course, sensationally irresponsible and derisory. If you want to learn about the artist’s class origins, intellectual outlook, creative development, professional contacts, even the identity of subjects that reappear and have personal meaning—things that actually matter—you’re out of luck.

But all these omissions serve Szarkowski’s valedictory purpose to keep his artist out of reach, even if, or rather precisely because, that weakens the public’s grasp of the intentions of the work, such as they are. I, for one, would like to know if there is anything to his affinities with Meatyard, Gossage, and Gowin, Southern photographers whose coherent black and white work suggests a demonic element in everyday life. And what of the way Eggleston causes naked light-bulbs and old shoes to loom in the frame, or tends occasionally to drench everything in the covertly expressionist hues of green and red? But to have recognized the input of conscious styling would have undermined the qualities that make these pictures “irreducible surrogates for the experience they pretend to record.”

Everything in Szarkowski’s text is designed to teach that the content of photographic images is untouchable, that no matter how fertile his own speculation about, say, a ’56 Buick parked at the boundary of suburb and country, “verbal descriptions are finally gratuitous.” To prove this, dialectical issues are introduced only to be cancelled: the artist’s impulse is hermetically diaristic but his style is “not inappropriate for photographs that might be introduced in court,” yet “a picture is after all only . . . a concrete kind of fiction, not to be admitted as hard evidence . . . . ”

Throughout he works to sidestep critical analysis through a rhetoric of personal modesty and respect for obviously ambiguous but ineffable statement. “The pictures mean precisely what they appear to mean,” and whatever follows from that, he says, is any fool’s guess. On the other hand, “Form is perhaps the point of art,” and “Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is inevitably about photography.” One would have thought that such a belief would permit him to discuss Eggleston’s historical contribution to the art, but on the contrary, “the pictures reproduced here” may be “no more interesting than the person who made them . . . which leads us away from the measurable relationships of art-historical science toward intuition, superstition, blood-knowledge, terror, and delight.”

He might just as well have mentioned faith, for it’s on that basis we have to distinguish the intelligence and intensity of Eggleston’s color from that of the ubiquitous amateur. Since the Memphian’s palette closely resembles the amateur’s, being “extraneous” and/or “pretty,” as any fool can plainly see, perhaps there should be some reasoning as to what “artistic” color is. The curator takes a stab at it: after great trials, ambitious color photographers now realize that “the world itself existed in color, as though the blue and the sky were one thing.” I should have thought this was no momentous discovery, but I can almost sense the part it will play in the legitimations to come.

Max Kozloff