New York

William Eggleston

Laurence Miller Gallery

Judging from the selection of photographs in “First Color, 1967–1973,” you would think that William Eggleston had been sent out to document the results of some sort of nuclear fallout that obliterated everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line. With the exception of one picture of a boy pushing some grocery carts, there is no sign of human life in any of these small, Ektacolor prints. Instead, there are decrepit roadside cafés, automobile junkyards, rusty or even bullet-riddled signs. Untitled, 1972, shows a defunct yellow car, impaled like a sucker on a stick, rising into the sky above a parking lot overgrown with weeds. Barely legible, the words “ACS AUTO PARTS” are painted on the car door. In the absence of people, the automobile becomes the main character; yet though eyebrows and lashes have been painted above its headlights, and its grille serves as a mouth, it is no Love Bug; rather, it is an emblem of obsolescence in a South careening from LBJ’s Great Society into the disillusion of the Nixon years. It is as if nothing occurred in the ’60s but the decay of the car culture of the ’50s. In Untitled, 1970, the tony Cadillac logo dissolves into rust. The rest of the sign is cropped by the border of the photograph, suggesting that “ales & serv” have been definitively cut off. In Untitled, 1972, the ramshackle house on wheels has been grounded in a barren country landscape. Its sole link to the world appears to be a utility line that, far from suggesting connectivity, only heightens the sense of desolation.

It was Eggleston, of course, who put the color-snapshot esthetic on the map with his controversial show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Typically, this esthetic suggests the “decisive moment” of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom Eggleston has always admired. Although it is evident in Untitled, 1967—the boy leans into his carts, his silhouette about to merge with that of the photographer in the slanting shadows cast by the setting sun (in fact, the decisive moment lies precisely in that line of light between their shadows, in that infinitely deferred implosion of the space between the artist and his subject)––the rest of the photographs in this exhibition seem to rely more upon a decisive sense of place. It could just be that this strong attention to place functions as a vernacular element in Eggleston’s esthetic; for better or for worse, he has often been dogged by the question of his work’s “Southernness,” a rhetoric he has even encouraged by shooting such eminently Southern landmarks as Graceland, and by declaring, in a phrase now famous, that the very structure of his photographs is based upon the configuration of the Confederate flag. Yet if there is any sort of vernacular to these works, it is not just that of a geography but of an era. Untitled, 1972, for example, is a temporal palimpsest. Taken from a low vantage point, the photo contrasts a pale-green marquee with the bright-blue sky above it. The sense of dilapidation evident in other photographs is conveyed by the mixed-up red letters that spell out “EEGAH/HOR OR DRACULA &/CURSE F ANKENSTEIN.” These films predate the photograph by at least ten years (the first is actually EEGAH!, 1962, a B-movie about a giant caveman running amok in the present; the others, from 1958 and 1957 respectively, are the classic horror films with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee). The past thus enters the present not just as ruin but as rerun. Moreover, the temporal layering evident in the photograph is perpetuated by the life of the image: to look at it today, when ’60s redux is the rage and drive-ins have been all but extirpated by the VCR, is to see it with eyes habituated to kitsch. In the final analysis, the decisive moment for these works will perhaps have been the historical one they document.

Keith Seward