New York

William Eggleston

Charles Cowles Gallery

The first thing one notices when looking at a photograph by WILLIAM EGGLESTON is the quality of his light. The range of tones and color in his work is impressive. He can offer a nearly monochromatic study enlivened by the subtlest of variation, and then turn around and produce a picture with intense and often unusual contrast. His prints, judged solely on these terms, are ravishing.

But color is not everything. One must also consider the rest of the picture, for a photograph can never be entirely free of the daily reality that it represents. Eggleston’s subject matter is the South. “Troubled Waters” is a new edition of 15 dye transfer prints culled from several hundred pictures shot in and around Memphis, Tennessee, in 1971. Many photographs from this series were gathered together in William Eggleston’s Guide, published by MoMA in 1976.

“Troubled Waters” has fewer of the wildly distorted caricatures which gave the earlier selection its awkward undercurrent of condescension. The distortions are still there—the unavoidable result of using a wide-angle lens—but Eggleston here seems more interested in providing a contemplative, even serene view of his subject, one in which all judgment is suspended save the esthetic.

But although the grotesque qualities are played down here, they are still apparent—apparent, but somehow made normal. Eggleston’s vision of the South is unexceptional, and rather discomforting. Black people are seen as part of the landscape, details viewed with the same detachment as the assorted bits of industrial debris that litter the countryside. The same cool distance is evident in the pictures of white middle-class life—the stuffed freezer, the clean, pious living room dominated by pedal organ and hymnbook, the Confederate flag (in neon), the over-full garbage bags. The pictures are loaded, made to appear as though they might be meant as social documents. But they are strangely defused, for in the end it is Eggleston’s mastery of light that retains our attention, forcing a troubled reality into esthetic limbo.

One picture, of a funerary statue, perhaps best stands for the edition as a whole. Its range of poetic, melancholic associations is clear. And yet in the end all one cares to think about is the softness of the light breaking over the folds of the angel’s robe, the brightness of the blue sky beyond.

Thomas Lawson

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