"William Eggleston: Democratic Camera-Photographs and Video, 1961-2008"

A once and future star gets his first New York museum solo show since 1976.

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Untitled, from Election Eve, circa 1976

Photograph: Eggleston Artistic Trust, Courtesy Cheim & Read Gallery

The photographers documenting this year’s election rarely unglued their lenses from the now-President-elect. William Eggleston’s 1976 study of Plains, Georgia, home of the Carter family, makes the case that perhaps they should’ve been prowling the back streets of Honolulu instead. On the cusp of the Ford-Carter contest, Eggleston set out for Plains on assignment for Rolling Stone. Finding Jimmy out campaigning, he photographed the town, and returned with enough images to fill a two-volume book.

Election Eve, 1976, which is among the bodies of work excerpted in this exemplary retrospective, depicts the rural South as a distinctly make-do-and-mend presidential birthplace, its ramshackle homes a million miles from the White House. It was a perfect project for the Mississippi-born shutterbug, whose artistic preference has always been for the quotidian—or, more accurately, for whatever his surroundings offer up—and for whom the human form is just one subject among many.

Eggleston doubtless had party politics in mind when he made the trip to Plains, but when he and the Whitney call his eye “democratic,” they are referring to an unprejudiced gaze. The dandyish 69-year-old has always been an aesthete at heart; his concerns are testing the limits of subject matter for an art photograph, and commandeering technical innovations to heighten its retinal punch.


Memphis, circa 1969-71

Photograph: Eggleston Artistic Trust, Courtesy Cheim & Read Gallery

Eggleston is most famous for having made color photography a recognized form of fine art, wrenching it away from its commercial associations. He began his polychromatic work in 1965, and an exhibition at MoMA 11 years later (courtesy of curator John Szarkowski, who also introduced him to other groundbreaking photographers such as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand) shook the medium to its core. Critically derided at the time for its perceived vulgarity, it made his career—although, until now, it had also remained his most recent New York museum solo show. Comprising shots taken around Sumner, his small-town home, it was accompanied by a faux travelogue, William Eggleston’s Guide. Shots from that series take center stage again in “Democratic Camera.”

Key to Eggleston’s methodology is the spontaneous snapshot in which unremarkable subjects are made to appear extraordinary via off-kilter exposures and camera angles. Pick almost any image from any series here, and the extent of Eggleston’s influence on and beyond photography is immediately apparent. The shadowing of white-picket-fence Americana with quasi-surreal menace that David Lynch has made his own, for example, seems to link directly back to shots such as Morton, Mississippi (circa 1969–70), in which an old man casually rests his revolver on a cozy patchwork quilt. And the male nude of Greenwood, Mississippi (circa 1972), who wanders around a graffiti-covered bedroom suffused with the sickly red light of a single bare bulb, now looks torn straight from Nan Goldin’s landmark mid-’80s collection, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The latter is also a vivid example of Eggleston’s adoption of dye-transfer printing, a convoluted process that, long before the advent of digital “correction,” allowed him to saturate images in chosen hues until, as he admits, they ceased to “look at all like the scene, which in some cases is what you want.”

Even viewers to whom Eggleston’s name is unfamiliar will recognize many of the images here, but there is at least one work that will be new to most, and it’s a revelation. Stranded in Canton is a video shot in 1973 and ’74 on a Portapak (Sony’s black-and-white proto-camcorder) and originally shown only in raw, unedited form to students and friends. In this 76-minute cut, the compulsively watchable visual scrapbook documents, in unblinking fashion, Eggleston’s epic bar crawls and the anything-but-camera-shy personalities along for the ride. Stranded in Canton paints a visceral picture of after-hours, between-times insanity, as the photographer’s cohorts rant, rave, bare their souls and play the blues. Like so much in Eggleston’s work, it’s anything but ordinary.

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