PRINT October 2001


Things don’t matter,” William Eggleston told me, years ago, when I made of asking him what he liked to photograph. “I don’t take pictures of things.” When I was a kid in Mississippi, I heard a story of Eggleston being hired to take pictures of a Delta wedding and lying on the grass the whole time taking pictures of the sky. Ever since, I’ve been a devoted follower of his heroic War with the Obvious, on whatever grounds he chooses to stand and fight it: in the beautiful places of the world, in the highways and garbage dumps of Mississippi.

The new photographs presented here are highly developed dramas that—miraculously—exist free of narrative. An educated eye will see an awareness of art history, which is pervasive without being directly allusive, but on an immediate level the visual pleasure offered is particularly biting and seductive, as bright as Snow White’s candy apple. No photographer understands better how to use industrial color, jarring or “difficult” color; anyone who knows Eggleston’s work knows that he's a great poet of the color red. But beneath the poisonous gaiety of artificial tints and manufactured objects (the striped lollipops, the X of the crash dummy’s torso) there’s a deeper sense of danger that’s impossible to pinpoint, a sparkle of menace in the unexpected (and sometimes inhuman) camera angles, a lingering unease in the deserted street and vacuous noonday bar interior nobody home. The viewer of an Eggleston photograph will often feel, with a pleasing shock, how it is to be some other kind of creature: a bird, a bumblebee, a baby on its hands and knees. And though these photographs (taken in Mexico City, California, Berlin) aren’t really about “mood,” there’s a mood all the same of a mysteriously abandoned world—depleted by radiation, perhaps, or disease—where objects are intact, the signs of recent departure evident, where the eyes of some lowly being (perhaps not even a living being, but a surveillance camera, a robot) freeze and click on the artifacts of a vanished civilization.

The poet Baudelaire once replied haughtily to his critics: “Do you take me for a barbarian like yourself, and do you believe me capable of amusing myself as dismally as you do?” I believe Eggleston would have a similar retort for his critic: who use impoverished words like “banal.” Objects speak to him in code—not only objects, but the space around and between objects—and his photographs (“like jokes and like lessons,” as he has described them elsewhere) are records of the process. Like Baudelaire, or Nabokov—another dandy-aristocrat with a warmly democratic aesthetic—Eggleston is a Mandarin whose sensibility rapaciously gathers everything unto itself, trash and canonical, low culture and high, where Mozart’s Queen of the Night and the bright neon lights of the Dairy Queen join in high aethereal chorus.

Donna Tartt

William Eggleston is the subject of a 150-work retrospective opening in November at the Fondation Cartier in Paris.