PRINT Summer 1988


“YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE something to counter the chaos,” William Eggleston once said. He was turning up a tape of Bach in his car stereo as we drove into the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, where the photographer lives. Eggleston does a lot of driving, and chaos, framed and ordered by a car window, is a frequent view in his daily rhythm. Taillights, telephone wires, parking lots—these are a few of the constituents of his driver’s vision. Surfacing in his photographs, they reveal the perspective of somebody in motion. There is a velocity combined with dexterity in the way Eggleston works. He drives a car with very good suspension and steering. He is forever dismantling and reassembling Leicas. He once used a device to focus his camera with one hand while keeping the other on the steering wheel. Sometimes he appears to make photographs as easily as he drives.

Eggleston’s view is contagious. When David Byrne was making the movie True Stories he invited Eggleston to the set, and felt the photographer’s sensibility take over like an “insidious creeping moss.” That sensibility seems oblique at first, but it becomes coherent as you grow accustomed to its logic. Traveling with him from, say, the Memphis airport to the suburban streets of the city, I notice that the landscape corresponds to his photographs. I feel the same way on the backroads of Tennessee or in the heartland of the Mississippi Delta, in the garden of a Hapsburg villa or by the kitchen sink. Eggleston is a virtuoso at transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, a power that lies at the heart of photography. His work grants us access to a private world in which we might recognize a wider one. Its dimensions are both intimate and universal, its language both lyrical and profoundly disturbing.

Looking back more than a decade to “William Eggleston’s Guide,” a milestone exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1976, accompanied by a book, the work that once seemed hermetic now seems explicit. Far from appearing simply as a set of private sketches of home territory, these photographs reveal the outlining constituents of an American epic. The deceptive normality of the small-town world, with its lawns, backyards, gracious interiors, dogs, and barbecues, is paralleled by a sinister edge—by graveyards, a funeral, a gun. Toward the end of the book version of the “Guide” is a photograph of a naked man standing in a bedroom. A bare bulb tints everything the red of the walls. “God,” “Mona,” and other graffiti are scrawled across the walls; a cigarette balanced on a chest of drawers must be burning the wood. Red is the color of danger.

Perhaps misled by the intimacy of Eggleston’s subjects in the “Guide,” some commentators have aligned the work with the snapshot, implying a casual, random quality. But the photographs have an inherent structure. In fact, as John Szarkowski records in his introduction to the book, Eggleston has cited the Confederate flag as an emblematic device or skeletal form in his photographs. Eggleston’s compositional technique frequently imposes the flag’s structure—of X-like diagonals meeting at a central point—on the photographic picture frame. In Greenwood, Mississippi, where he photographed the man in the red bedroom, he also made an image of a bare lightbulb against a reddish ceiling, with white cables radiating from it X-like to the borders of the room.

Before “William Eggleston’s Guide,” photographers and critics had often considered color photography vulgar. Legitimate photography was done in black and white. The formal issues raised by the structures of Eggleston’s images worked to question this notion, and the ensuing debate was vital in the acceptance of color photography as a medium for serious work. Though the argument raged most intensely about visual structure, as if it were Eggleston’s primary concern, the power of his images is inextricable from his use of color itself. Sometimes viscerally discordant, the photographer’s colors have a cumulative emotional volatility. In the photograph of the ceiling, for example, which skews your vision unusually upward in the room, as if you were seeing with the eye of a fly drawn to the swelling lightbulb, the field of red has an emotional weight—it is as though the ceiling were bleeding. Here, color reinforces the visual structure’s reference to the Confederate flag—metaphorically a field of blood.

One day in the early ’80s, when Eggleston was driving near Oxford, Mississippi, he stopped his car at the edge of a forest. The spot had no particular view or vantage; it didn’t seem to distinguish itself in any striking way from the whole continuum of spots that made up the road. Still, Eggleston forced himself to work, peering into the undergrowth, down into the dirt. That night, in the company of a group of writers, he was asked what he had photographed during the day. “A forest,” he replied, then added, “A kind of democratic forest.”

Eggleston believes that he can photograph everything. Not only can he equate a red ceiling with a rebel banner through the lens, he can represent all of the world within the lens’ field, can resolve the visible within the rectangular two-dimensional frame of the photographic print. This egalitarian system of representation is Eggleston’s rebellious challenge, his guiding principle. Ceiling and leaves on the bough, clouds and floor, flowers and trash can all be the subjects of his declared democracy. It is as though he had realized that given time, he could photograph the whole world. The Democratic Forest is the project Eggleston has been working on since about 1983. In their number, its photographs are virtually impossible to apprehend: since its conception it has grown to more than 10,000 prints. The work’s vast scale is a defining ingredient in its character. Stretching all the way from Tennessee to the outer edges of the Western world, it seems to have halted at the Berlin Wall. In one way and another, the forest contains many trees; its common substance is wood, though as often shaped into the straight uprights of telephone poles as knotted and distorted by nature. Accordingly, the forest is tied together by wire. The cables that radiate out from Memphis to the far reaches of Europe bind in this world, like the highways that crisscross a map.

Though full of references to democracy, The Democratic Forest no more addresses a political system than it literally describes forestry, though full of trees. Yet it is political inasmuch as it is founded on a system of order and equal representation. It challenges the world’s anarchy. It is striking, then, that at least in the edited version of the project to be published in the spring of 1989, only two people appear: the photographer’s teenage son is seen twice, and a black woman invades a brown Mississippi scene like a ghost of Southern history. The forest is inhabited as much as anything by automobiles, which lie in tension with the foliage; shrubs sprout apparently from beneath their bodywork. You can travel the forest as if you were driving, the routes unwinding before you as if seen through the headlamp eyes of a car. People are conspicuous by their absence. The interiors are uninhabited.

Only through a structure could Eggleston photograph the whole world, and he builds the forest in symphonic terms. There are no pretensions in the analogy to music, since vastly disparate musical sources are Eggleston’s nourishment. One can find a prelude to The Democratic Forest in his mid-’80s photographs of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion, for many a site of pilgrimage and one of the more exaggerated living spaces in America. The singer’s house provided Eggleston with a monumental subject. Fifty years before, Walker Evans had photographed the homes of impoverished sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama, to form a black and white record of a classic American interior; Presley journeyed from a shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, not unlike those Evans saw, to the palace on the hill. This is the route of an essential American dream; Graceland is an essential destination. Yet the saturated colors in which Eggleston photographed it emphasize its quality of the mausoleum. Graceland was the monument on his doorstep; it sets an epic tone.

The Democratic Forest opens in a pastoral mood, with grand vistas, rolling clouds, forested hillsides, fields of tobacco, a skyline in Sunflower County, Mississippi—the family territory. The sequence of movements that follows carries the viewer through defined interludes in Pittsburgh; in Dallas, with its Texas School Book Depository building, from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal shots; in the artifice of the 1984 world’s fair in New Orleans. The longest section is beneath the blue sky and beside the palms and bougainvillea of Miami, where Eggleston finds both lyrical passages of luxuriant growth and Deco architectural facades discreetly stating wealth and power. The book ends in an abstraction—a blurred aerial view of Saint Louis, the green nocturnal city strung together with electric lights. Beginning with a precise sense of place, it culminates in a suspension, in a modern urban view glimpsed from a plane, detached, distant, and in motion.

Somewhere in the center of Eggleston’s world is a memory of the Delta and of Tennessee, places to which he always returns. The title “Southern artist” comes with too many stereotypical associations to be applied to him comfortably; he transcends it. Yet he is inescapably of the South. In the center of his book is a series of photographs around which the forest’s structure seems to pivot. A number of images of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s house outside Nashville, evoke the South’s political power before the Civil War, and the processes of American democracy. Not far from Nashville, near Gallatin, Tennessee, is Cragfont, the house of the Confederate general James Winchester; here again Eggleston adopts the fly’s-eye view, probing the structure of wooden beams under the building’s roof. The hewn timbers fan out abstractly across the frame, in images of solidity and constancy. The scale of the loss during the Civil War is explicit around Nashville; in one house, the Carnton Mansion in Franklin (where Eggleston has also photographed), four Confederate generals were laid out on the veranda to die of battle wounds incurred in a single afternoon. As if in response, the Cragfont photographs strip the forest bare. The rafters reveal structure within structure. You think of the intricate machinery with which Eggleston surrounds himself—the Leicas, tape recorders, a gun. He is always delving into their guts.

Before Eggleston’s camera the Berlin Wall, on the outer edge of the forest, becomes not so much a barrier as an inscribed surface. Encountering tangible social division, Eggleston abstracts it, just as he abstracts the divides of history. Berlin, Nashville, the site of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas: the forest is Eggleston’s map and this chain of places its marks, its reference points—a radical abstraction. In one domestic interior, a red pan meets a red timer meets a red can opener. A meal has been cooked, and the props are easily recognizable as kitchen objects—but the dirty pan looks as delicate as Chinese lacquer, and the can opener easily dissolves into a diagonal red slash. A Memphis kitchen has become an Oriental still life. Nothing has been posed, no objects moved, but chaos has been tamed and structured. The cumulative effect of such photographs is a reorientation of perception, as if one had undergone some retinal transplant.

On a rare occasion when Eggleston discussed photographic history with me, we talked about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book The Decisive Moment, 1952. Eggleston made no mention of the usual critical issues attached to that work—form, the photographic fragment of time; instead, he said he like the whites on the book’s printed page. His perception was dominated by tonal qualities, as if he had eradicated the images’ content and shape. The viewer who applies the same perception to Eggleston’s own work finds the red ceiling pressed flat as a flag, or vistas of distance becoming two-dimensional outlines filled in with blocks of color. Depth is smoothed into a language of facades. Looking at Eggleston’s pictures you begin to see potential photographs of his in every direction. But his camera looks out at the objective world, and if it abstracts it, it never quite loses it. His pictures are as disturbing as they are formally elegant. During a passage through New Orleans the photographer descends to the level of the grass; crawling in the undergrowth, he seems to have an alien, animal eye. Foreign shapes in shocking blue swell into a bubble across his vision. The image is as hideous as a poisoned hallucination. The abstraction is not cerebral; it is frightening.

Eggleston’s ability to render all he sees as his may be one of his burdens. The democracy of the lens can be overwhelming; it may become too easy for him to lift the camera and make another image. He once did a series of landscapes at random points along a fixed line of latitude, as if to abdicate compositional authority, the photographer’s selective eye. His work remains his own. And in his company, the interiors he inhabits, even the hotel rooms he passes through, seem to burst with visual connections. On the wall above his tape recorder is a simple photograph of two chairs, a window, a panama hat. It is an empty hotel room photographed in homage to Edward Hopper. Any number of color photographers could make derivative Hopperesque work, but it is not so easy to transpose the emotional tone of a Hopper painting. How many photographers can photograph emptiness? What is the color of absence?

For all its encyclopedic size, The Democratic Forest is finite, contained by its structure. A surprising sequel has emerged. Eggleston has no equivalent to a writer’s notes or a painter’s sketches; the best evidence of his working process is the photographs themselves. (Printing nearly everything he shoots, he makes little use of contact sheets.) He does, however, make drawings, often carrying a case of drawing supplies with him as he travels. These works are abstractions in felt tip and crayon, skeleton structures, layered and labored. Their execution is prolonged; they have none of the immediacy of photography. Eggleston is now working with the further ingredient of watercolor to give the layering more spatial depth. Your vision descends into the pictures, or through them; the effect is almost the reverse of the flattening out of the photographs.

Eggleston recently took six pages from his sketchbook, completed in England and Egypt, and reproduced them as lithographs, slightly enlarged from their originals. He could see them more clearly in this printed form, as if he were looking at a poster of one of his photographs. They represent abstract surfaces in total correspondence to the surface of a reproduced photograph, and on a similar scale. At first glance they appear to display a frantic energy. Unlike the chaos that Eggleston challenges with the camera, this is a chaos he has created. The drawings involve a descent into a jungle, a place to which a man of precision might be attracted, a place immune from the camera. They provide him with the unphotographable. They reach a point that the democracy of the lens, despite its all-encompassing range, cannot reach. As the drawings develop so another pattern emerges, and the chaos subsides into a new order, as if he had discovered another language. He creates a wild new domain, then tames it, and our eye becomes familiar with his lines, the imprint of his order.

Maybe in Southern California or urban Japan or various other places of pronounced chaos you can see the wastelands of visual conflict stimulating creative responses to defy them. The tension between structure and chaos (between steel—the chassis of a car—and vegetation) is fertile. Out of the American South, a landscape embedded in its past, comes a new language of form and color. In so challenging chaos, Eggleston has circumscribed the world.

Mark Holborn is a writer and editor who currently lives in London.

The Democratic Forest , edited by Mark Holborn and with an introduction by Eudora Welty, will be published by Seeker and Warburg, London, in the spring of 1989.

All photographs are by William Eggleston and from The Democratic Forest.