Left to right: William Eggleston, Untitled (Statue of Spotted Dog), 2001, color photograph, 40 x 30“. William Eggleston, Untitled (Memphis, Tennessee), 1965, black-and-white photograph, 10 x 8”.

Left to right: William Eggleston, Untitled (Statue of Spotted Dog), 2001, color photograph, 40 x 30“. William Eggleston, Untitled (Memphis, Tennessee), 1965, black-and-white photograph, 10 x 8”.

William Eggleston

One new photograph, specially commissioned for this 215-image retrospective, shows a spotted pooch, presumably made of porcelain but in any event exceedingly well behaved. Sporting a red leash that leads outside the frame (to its master’s hand? to a doorknob?), the animal, an English pointer by the look of it, stares patiently out at us. We can easily guess that the photo was taken in Japan (Kyoto, in fact), or at least in a Far Eastern country, as the upper corner reveals the edge of a poster on which several ideograms appear. Like all of the Japanese photos commissioned for the Fondation Cartier show, William Eggleston’s Untitled (Statue of Spotted Dog), 2001, is printed large (forty inches high by thirty inches wide) and hung in one of the two expansive glass boxes that make up the ground floor of Jean Nouvel’s building.

To situate these brand-new images within the four-decade career of the photographer from Memphis, Tennessee, one descends to the lower level, where the viewer is greeted by another dog: a cocker spaniel puppy photographed in 1965 in the artist’s hometown. This dog’s black eyes are also fixed on the viewer, but here they are obscured by dark fur. Displayed near other early southern scenes (a rundown snack bar at night, a driveway bisected by a tree’s shadow), the image is among the earliest works by the artist we know will soon abandon black and white to grant color the acceptance it had until then been denied in the art world.

Comparing these two images of canines shot more than three decades apart is instructive as much in terms of what they share as in what distinguishes them, and their differences cannot be reduced simply to the question of color. Both photos perfectly illustrate Eggleston’s unorthodox view: “Sometimes I like the idea of making a picture that does not look like a human picture,” he says. “Humans make pictures which tend to be about five feet above the ground looking out horizontally. I like very fast flying insects moving all over, and I wonder what their view is from moment to moment. I have made a few pictures which show that physical viewpoint.” Indeed, neither the pointer in Kyoto nor the cocker spaniel in Memphis is photographed at human-eye level. Eggleston has placed his lens at dog—or even puppy—height: a fatal vantage for the person holding the spaniel’s leash, as the frame cuts off his head and upper torso. It’s a singular perspective for the viewer too, who, when locked in either animal’s gaze, gets the impression of being on all fours himself.

If the images share the canine point of view, they differ in several significant ways. The black-and-white one is much smaller (ten by eight inches), and they diverge palpably in the way the subject occupies the field. The puppy of 1965 fills only a modest portion of the image, at the center of the shot. Its decapitated master, several cars, and a shadow that might belong to the head of the photographer take up more of the frame. In contrast, the Japanese dog fills a good deal of the image; nothing steals its spotlight. While the ideograms lend context, the white tiling along the right border and the texture of the wooden door behind the dog do little more than provide a neutral backdrop. Finally, though, one cannot fail to observe a connection between the two works: While the later photo is in color, the animal itself is for all intents and purposes black and white.

Pairing another photograph from the Kyoto series with an earlier work is equally instructive. The first is a low-angle shot that shows part of a complex Japanese post-and-beam roof; the other, Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi), 1973–74, is the now almost iconic view of a red ceiling with an electric bulb at its center. The Kyoto vermilion is clearly less seedy than the Greenwood red, but the jumble of beams recalls the unlikely tangle of electrical wires that makes the bulb socket rhyme with the pornographic diagrams peeking in at lower right. Despite, or because of, the drastic cropping to which these common schemas have been subjected, we read in them the grammar of another sort of hooking up.

These are but two examples of the connections that exist between photographs at every stage in Eggleston’s oeuvre. What always strikes the viewer is not just the intelligence and complexity of the work but the radicality of a vision that, by altering point of view, can tempt the eye of the viewer, decentered from the start, right out of the frame. Except, of course, that the eye is just as ineluctably drawn back into the photo itself. Color, which has been emphasized in the critical evaluation of Eggleston’s art, is ultimately secondary to the inescapable ocular movement induced by his images. Color accentuates the works’ strange and trenchant incisiveness, but in the end it is that movement that creates their special force.

Daniel Soutif is a Paris-based curator and critic. He curated the 1968–89 portion of “Continuity: Art in Tuscany,” on view in Pistoia, Italy, through June 10.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.