PRINT May 2006


William Eggleston

WHAT WE MOST admire about William Eggleston and his exquisite gothic photographs is that these perspicuous glimpses of the American South stem from a life of deeply engaged observation—the kind that blurs the line between the photographer and the photographed. His work manifests a unique form of visual empathy. That the pictures are almost always nearly too perfect, formally speaking, is what elevates his interiors and portraits to the level of high art. Eggleston’s mastery of color and composition refreshes our visual understanding of a tricycle, an old car, the rooms of Graceland, or even a woman seated in a rural diner.

So the discovery—decades after the fact—that in 1973 Eggleston had been seduced by the relatively new technology of portable black-and-white video comes as something of a revelation. Of course, scores of photographers and filmmakers (along with many other artists whose work did not involve photographic images) were fascinated by the Porta-Pak—even though the grainy gray imagery could hardly have satisfied the image habits to which color photography, film, and television had attuned us. At that time, a broad range of musicians, dancers, sculptors, and painters found in this new medium a way of making art within no established critical framework, with no history, no market, and no expectations.

But the real lure of video was that it provided the capacity to inexpensively record and immediately reproduce a sense of real time that had previously been afforded only by audio recording. The very idea of accessible real-time visual recording held a kind of open promise that many—including Eggleston—found irresistible. Like film diarist Jonas Mekas or video pioneers such as the Videofreex, he wholeheartedly engaged the notion of real-time documentary, and he began recording aspects of his everyday life in Memphis, apparently with no particular end product in mind. He stopped about a year later, apparently for no particular reason.

And now, more than thirty years after Eggleston shot some seventy-five tapes comprising over thirty hours of video, his “experiment” has been edited (with documentarian Robert Gordon) into Stranded in Canton—a seventy-seven-minute compilation of portraits, loosely strung together with a voice-over narrative by the artist himself. These tapes have a fever-dream quality, exposing in barely edited real-time chunks a group of the artist’s friends and family—many of whom are characters one would find hard to believe exist if this weren’t such compelling “reality television.” Oddly enough, seen in the context of contemporary reality TV, Eggleston’s somewhat claustrophobic chronicle of people from his own life may seem to some a bit genteel and dated.

For, unlike Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank’s anguished 1972 cinema-verité documentation of a Rolling Stones tour, or Frederick Wiseman’s rigorous investigative documentaries, such as Titicut Follies (1967), Stranded in Canton relies on a hypercasual, completely personal, and slow-paced approach. With perhaps the exception of the spontaneous geek performance toward the end of Stranded, Eggleston’s simple, unvarnished, and always personalized camera work lends a different kind of authenticity to this deeply moving artifact.

Carried along in its narrative flow by the artist’s voice and a stream of casual musical performances, Stranded contains songs by an assortment of Eggleston’s friends, including Jerry McGill (now in prison for attempted murder), Jim Dickinson (still making music in Mississippi), blues singer Furry Lewis, and a remarkable harmonica player named Johnny Woods, along with frenzied clips of onstage performances by none other than Jerry Lee Lewis and the King himself.

Even given his inexperience with the intricacies of the new video technology, Eggleston was able to bring a distinctive style to this work. Posing silently, his children and his girlfriend at the time are photographed lovingly, in a style reminiscent of his gentler still photography. Using a low-light-level infrared tube and a high-quality lens (Eggleston souped up the camera himself), he was able to record life in dark bars and dimly lit rooms without rendering his subjects in a ghostly pale imagery.

Listening to and watching the artist’s friends, many of whom are raving drunk or stoned on Quaaludes, is not always pleasant. But the intense realism remains compelling, and as we sense that there is no standard narrative payoff looming, we recognize that Eggleston has found a way to use this crude black-and-white camera and recorder to convey as much, if not more, than the optically precise, carefully rendered moments extracted from the flow of time in his still photographs. It seems that he found, in this experiment with moving imagery and the temporality of video, a way inside the subjects of his portraiture, for it is their individual and collective response to his presence that we are actually reading.

Of course, after the work wraps up with a satisfying (though somewhat standard) documentary-style voice-over update on the lives and deaths of those who found themselves “stranded” with Eggleston, our first thought is, Why didn’t he take this further? Why did he take up the Porta-Pak for a while and then stop shooting video altogether? Why didn’t he continue to explore the medium as an extension of, and complement to, his still photographic practice?

Throughout Stranded we hear the all-but-invisible artist off camera, and we find ourselves comfortably conveyed by his gentle, restless, and relentless character. At the same time, we are not so comfortable entering Eggleston’s liminal space. We yearn to know more, not just about what lies beneath the surface of those his camera recorded, but about the artist himself. And in the end, that is denied us, ensuring that we too understand what it must be like to be stranded in Canton.

David A. Ross, president of the Artist Pension Trust and an independent curator, was curator of video art at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY, from 1971 through 1974.

William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton, which made its US debut at the Walter Reade Theater in New York on February 15, will be released on DVD later this year.