New York

William Eggleston

“Avoid prettiness—the word looks much like pettiness, and there is but little difference between them.” With these words, Peter Henry Emerson raged against fluffy concoctions of sublimity and romance in his 1889 treatise Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, which made the case that some photography should be accorded artistic (rather than scientific or commercial) status. While there’s now little question as to the medium’s creative viability, one need only reflect on the career of William Eggleston, whose landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 unmistakably marked the arrival of color photography into “art” terrain, to see this as a relatively recent development. One can only assume that the artist generally regarded as the pioneer of modern color photography would have gained the approval of Emerson twice over, since his images are not only “naturalistic,” but are as contrary to prettiness as oil to water.

Not that Eggleston’s images aren’t beautiful—they almost always are. But by consistently calling attention to the ineffable within the ordinary, the artist’s ostensibly prosaic subjects have come to occupy a particular kind of iconic status. (Try looking at a red ceiling without thinking of Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973.) It is precisely that which refuses articulation in the artist’s photographs that best defines his nearly four-decade-long career. One could say that Eggleston’s work has a certain je ne sais quoi, an “irreducible” quality that John Szarkowski identifies in his introduction to the influential William Eggleston’s Guide (1976). But for all his photographs’ holism, it is Eggleston’s use of color that has habitually been assigned primary significance, as though its appearance in his work of the mid-’60s marked the blooming of his mature eye.

Yet for all the attention that the artist’s color photography has rightfully garnered over the years, it is worth remembering that he never wholly abandoned black-and-white. Indeed, his latest exhibition comprised a series of stunning black-and-white images taken in 1973 but shown here for the first time. Entitled “The Nightclub Portraits,” this is a body of work anomalous in more than just its stark refusal of hue. For the work of an artist who very recently reflected that “generally, to me, people, human beings, are not terrifically interesting to look at in photographs,” “The Nightclub Portraits” stands as a unique exercise in contradiction to the Eggleston we thought we knew. Snapping in the Memphis clubs and juke joints he frequented, Eggleston captured the likenesses of patrons largely shrouded in darkness.

The results are twenty-eight large-scale photographs of larger-than-life men and women in Deep South ’70s gear, ranging from sunglasses-at-night aviators to Farrah-flipped bleach-blond hair and Elvis-inspired muttonchops. Yet, riveting as the sitters’ accoutrements are, most compelling is the way in which each person is at once magnified—laid bare and vulnerable—and reduced to an opaque human wall. Staring, smiling, grimacing, glowering, these are less portraits of “individuals” than of the expressions that settle fleetingly on their malleable features. Each face feels stranger and more physically ambivalent than the next, as if the process of viewing the works together yields an intentionally cumulative effect. Eggleston, in fact, once famously described his works overall as operating “like jokes and like lessons.” “The Nightclub Portraits” is both: witty and pathetic, sad and gorgeous, seductive and abrasive, faithful and utter fiction. But they are certainly neither pretty nor petty.

Johanna Burton