PRINT February 2023

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William Eggleston, Untitled, ca. 1970–73, ink-jet print, framed 45 1⁄4 × 63 1⁄2".

IN WILLIAM EGGLESTON’S Untitled, ca. 1970–73, five mostly modest-size vehicles—demure by comparison to the bench-seat behemoths the photographer seemed constitutionally drawn to—line up in awkward parking jobs like a row of mustered volunteers who haven’t quite yet figured out how to hold themselves and their rifles in formation. The cars are mismatched in make and color, from the burgundy of the Plymouth at the front (which dominates nearly a quarter of the photo’s expanse) to the silvery blue of the strange model (is it an import decked out with fins?) near the rear. The parking is not orderly but not completely sloppy, either, just as subtly off as the broken line formed by the concrete parking barriers that recede into the background of the picture. Whoever drove the sporty cherry-red two-door left the window down and backed in. The strange symphony of ready-made industrial auto colors, topped off by the dissonant golden yellow of the car that can just be glimpsed farthest out, is echoed by the oddball geometry the picture instantiates. And way back in the distance, under the gray skies, there’s a sign and an arrow paralleling the horizon line of the distant fields. Of course, we’re at Stuckey’s, the southern chain that served up cheap pre-OPEC-crisis gas and an astonishing variety of sticky, cellophane-wrapped pecan logs. The striped paper cups littering the foreground should already have given it away.

There’s the Stuckey’s, and then there’s the 1970s vision of driverless cars. Eggleston was from the start a maestro at milking the menace and mirth and, occasionally, melancholy in the vehicles he let dominate his photographs, often without any people in sight. “I don’t know why there are so goddamned many pictures of people,” he once told an interviewer. “People in general are not that attractive.” Both the automobiles and the places they might find themselves ran through practically every picture in “The Outlands,” a look back at twenty-nine works from Eggleston’s early forays in color, most never before seen in public, recently on view at David Zwirner. In the same gallery was his picture of the Shake Shack (more back to the future?) out in what looks like the Delta, or maybe it’s a few miles off in the direction of Nashville or the outskirts of West Memphis, a shimmering play of reflecting glass and oblique angles where the car with the DOGPATCH USA bumper sticker abuts a white truck and a semi; the billboard in the background advertising a local Mexican joint, set off amid the neat rows of crops like an exile from a Walker Evans shot, is no competition for the drive-up’s soaring curlicue ice cream cone and bold tangerine-and-red signage. In the other gallery, there was a photo of Monte’s, a hot-pit barbecue-and-biscuit drive-through where the imposing cross-shaped neon sign that may or may not be working (impossible to tell, since it’s shot in bright daylight, one of Eggleston’s favorite gambits) beckons you to eat in your car. There were the images of drive-ins, fixtures of southern highways when hicksploitation films like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Color Me Blood Red (1965)and Burt Reynolds’s Gator (1976) worked their Techni­color magic on the Dixie circuit and, one imagines, on Eggleston’s appetite for supersaturated primaries; here, they were pictured in varying states of decay or emptiness, advertisements for their own obsolescence.

William Eggleston, Untitled, ca. 1970–73, ink-jet print, framed, 45 1⁄8 × 64".

Early Eggleston has always been linked as much to the contemporary southern literary imagination as to precedents in photography, to the exploded idea of “local color” and the mission to capture the contradictions of the emerging New South of the late ’60s and ’70s, caught uneasily between the worlds of George Wallace and Jimmy Carter. He always resisted, sometimes facetiously, the regionalist assertions the associations implied (most notoriously telling John Szarkowski, the curatorial gatekeeper who launched the photographer’s career in a legendary 1976 show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that the organizing formal principle behind his most famous work, a 1973 shot of a red ceiling, was the Confederate battle flag). Maybe the best way to make peace with his resistance to the label is to describe him as a southern photographer who happens to be from the South. Be that as it may, the writerly vein that courses through his oeuvre is impossible to deny. In Walter Hopps’s memoir The Dream Colony (2017), the curator relates his introduction to Eggleston in the early ’70s, when the photographer laconically handed him a box stuffed with color prints and stood silently staring out the window and enjoying a cigarette while Hopps leafed through the contents. Two-thirds of the way in, he finally asked Eggleston what he thought he was up to, and Eggleston gave the answer he’d deliver a variation of time and time again over the next five decades: “Well, I think I’m working on a novel, don’t you?”

Given his prolific output, Eggleston seems to owe as much to Joyce Carol Oates as to Flannery O’Connor. The images on view at Zwirner were culled from some five thousand Kodachrome slides, dated circa 1970–73, by a team including the photographer’s sons. (A much larger selection of previously unprinted coeval images was published in a three-volume 2021 Steidl edition, The Outlands, which spawned the oversize, pumpkin-orange paperback The Outlands: Selected Works published on the occasion of the gallery show, with a superb essay by Robert Slifkin and a short story by Rachel Kushner.) In a literal yet welcome sense, there’s nothing new here at all.

What looks like a paean to period aesthetics is transformed into a moment of magical detail.

Most welcomely un-new in the Zwirner show was the familiar inventiveness of Eggleston’s eye, which never allowed itself to grow bored with the flotsam of the busy commercial strips of Memphis and the dirt purlieus of environs farther afield. Here in abundance were the rusted pickups and shot-up sedans and Jax Beer ads and hand-printed bills for some local office seeker, but rather than seem de rigueur, they look in these prints as if they’d never thought of being caught on film before. Ditto the drive-by come-ons for quick-stop liquor stores—through Eggleston’s camera, which amps up their already exuberant verticality, they, like the giant ice cream cone perched over the Shake Shack, offer a visual crash course in the banal baroque of a semi-urban southern vista we might dub Learning from Little Rock. In one print in the Zwirner show, the photographer captures his late wife, Rosa, in profile in a package-store parking lot, her fur-lined slicker slung casually over her shoulders, the morning (?) sunlight providing a glow to her red heels and turning the damp concrete behind her into a mirroring shimmer. What looks like a paean to period aesthetics is transformed into a moment of magical detail, with light, geometry, and color all doing their part in a photo all the more remarkable for its veneer of casual impersonality.

The un-new Eggleston was evoked again and again in the works on display. Some prints seemed like the missing footnotes to his best-known pictures. The ghoulishly graffitied room with a green oxygen tank nestled in its corner—a space Eggleston’s camera has characteristically jiggered so that the right angle where walls meet becomes a playfully splayed, nearly flat field of blood red—is the same Greenwood, Mississippi, interior that featured in the catalogue accompanying the MoMA show, where he photographed his dentist friend, the improbably named T. C. Boring, buck naked. A two-tone Dodge Suburban sporting a REGISTER COMMUNISTS NOT OUR FIREARMS sticker is a dead rhyme for the seemingly oversize tricycle, made gargantuan by Eggleston’s signature “insect eye” camera angle, that graced the cover of that same monograph (indeed, the car’s headlight is visible in the tricycle shot, the two images evidently having been shot one right after the other). Others offered allusions to the few photographer forebears Eggleston would acknowledge. In an abandoned pump station, apparently the former home of the indecisively named Rebel Truck Stop and Rebel Cafe, a momentary puddle and the slick of wet car tracks seem to pay oblique homage at once to Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment and Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963.

William Eggleston, Untitled, ca. 1970–73, ink-jet print, framed, 64 3⁄4 × 45 1⁄8".

Making all those connections—Cartier-Bresson, Ruscha, Walker Evans, Robert Frank—is also un-new. And it is not a particularly eye-opening response to this early work. But like the surfeit of meaningless/meaningful detail in these works, seeing again how Eggleston transformed photographic history is no less invigorating. The images make the simple act of looking feel like a newfound gift. Asked why there were so many dogs in his pictures, Eggleston said, “You don’t see many ugly dogs.” You don’t see many bad-to-photograph Stuckey’s, either, which is probably the same thing. What looks like the overhanging angled roof of one—if my native memory of the architecture holds—anchors the corner of an image where, true to form, Eggleston has photographed a set of fluorescent-light fixtures and, bedecking the roof’s edge, the vernacular modernist eye candy of a row of plastic red diamonds. It takes several seconds of viewing to read the orientation of the roof, and to parse the frame-in-a-frame wall of semi-reflecting glass windows underneath it and, behind that, the interior light fixtures and the sign advertising the enticing frosty shakes. So much so that you pause before admiring the uncertain buildup of white clouds—is it a sunny day or an approaching storm?—that dominate the picture and are ostensibly the real subject here. And that’s before you spot the smallest detail, the tiny airliner in the upper-left quadrant, abstracted into an arrow pointing to the edge of the print, away from the earthbound composition, as incidental as Icarus tumbling into the sea.

Eric Banks is a writer and editor based in New York.