PRINT February 1983


THE BLATANTLY MECHANISTIC CONDITION bound to photographic seeing has confounded photographic discourse. One-way thinking has stratified this moonlighting medium ever since its invention, zoning it into polemic ghettos walled off by hegemonies and hierarchies. The conceptual astigmatisms have only been aggravated since the further challenge, the tease of color, was introduced, offering still pictures a transition as momentous as sound did moving ones.

William Eggleston’s pictorial vocabulary—edited bits from his local world—has been described as commonplace. Some have taken this to mean pictures that any of us might be likely and able to click. Giving form and its consequence—meaning—to visible data that in life we take for granted and forget to observe, or experience, seems too invisible a project for magic-seekers. The fact is that Eggleston’s invention is to cut from the vernacular leaving no scars, to draw from it compositions of color so intelligent and emotionally ingrained that they persuade us as images that weigh in at the roots of our lives. In their “commonness” they achieve the peace that comes from a sense of absolute belonging; hence their spell.

Eggleston is from and lives in the South, which is, to borrow a term from nuclear physics, the strong force that binds and centers his compositions. In the essay accompanying his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1976, the curator, John Szarkowski, relays Eggleston’s quip that the pictures under consideration were based compositionally on the Confederate flag. This is a clue to the structural influence that the place holds on Eggleston’s photographic identity more than it is a picturesque anecdote or a formalist law. The people in his photographs are friends, relatives, and neighbors, and most of the places Eggleston can see driving back and forth, but this is private information; none of them are his subject proper, which, like the oral tradition recorded by the great Southern spinners of words (Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty), is a fiction as much as it is life.

After color came, the perception of black and white and their extended family of tones in film, photography, television, and reproduction radically changed. Similarly, “realism” in painting has taken on a different pictorial ideology since photography. The painting type labeled Photorealism, never adequately plumbed by critics, provided an impasse—a collision between painting and photography—a lockjaw of dual reference. Eggleston reopens these issues; using processed color with the modulation, the sense of even habit, with which a genre painter, a Chardin, used painted color (also to depict “the commonplace”), he has found a way for light to have air in color, to breathe from it instead of be blocked by it—as usually happens in color photography. The color is so in key with Eggleston’s vision of his subject, so matter-of-fact, that one could slip into not thinking about it. But it is the big wave on which all the information rides in. For example, the red-and-black-striped necktie in the picture on the cover, which was taken at a relative’s funeral, is the wise blood of a picture sucking up color in its thorough dedication to the history of the subject of black and white (photography and people).

Ingrid Sischy