Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Over the holiday weekend, I finally managed to see the William Eggleston retrospective at the Whitney, Democratic Camera: Photogaphs and Video, 1961-2008.

So many amateur photographers now pursue perfectly framed arrangements of nothing--of commercial detritus, or neglected storefronts, boosted with supersaturated color via Photoshop--that I sometimes wonder how Eggleston's souped-up dye transfer printed images will look with age.

At the time he printed his photos, of course, they looked impossibly fresh and strange. Plenty of critics loathed his 1970 show at the MoMA, organized by curator of photography and early Eggleston enthusiast John Szarkowski. Szarkowski famously called Eggleston's pictures "perfect," and he also couldn't help noticing how effectively the photographer gave everyday life a patina of strangeness, almost exoticism:
These pictures are fascinating partly because they contradict our expectations. We have been told so often of the bland, synthetic smoothness of exemplary American life, of its comfortable, vacant insentience, its extruded, stamped, and molded sameness, in a word its irredeemable dullness, that we have come half to believe it, and thus are startled and perhaps exhilarated to see these pictures of prototypically normal types on their familiar ground, grandchildren of Penrod, who seem to live surrounded by spirits, not all of them benign.
The good news is that Eggleston's photos still look as unnerving today as they surely did in that first major museum show 38 years ago. The rural South that Eggleston depicts in vignettes both commonplace--kids running with dogs, a rusted tricycle, some old codger with a dandruff-flecked pompadour--and not so commonplace--nude men with guns, young girls laid out like corpses, Graceland--doesn't really resemble any South I've ever seen.

In D.C., of course, there are plenty of chances to see the work of Eggleston's friend, mentor, and onetime colleague,
William Christenberry, who teaches at the Corcoran and is shown locally by Hemphill Fine Arts. And while there are certainly similarities in the color and character of the images of Christenberry and Eggleston, they offer two wholly different photographic universes.

Christenberry's work seems to be about persistence--think of his sequences of photos taken of foundering buildings from year to year, across decades, sometimes accompanied by scale models of the structures. He may be documenting the ravages of time, but there is ultimately a timeless idea of place with which the artist is grappling. Not so with Eggleston--who is always thinking now now now. True, as Peter Schjeldahl noted, viewing Eggleston's photos brings each successive recorded moment forward in time, alive again in the present tense:
He does regularly suppress one significant element of lived experience: time. His art re-proves Roland Barthes’s influential theory of the punctum—a Proustian quantum of lost time—as intrinsic to photography’s emotional power. The hour on Eggleston’s clock is always right now. Whatever is dated in his early subjects—car models, hairdos—barges into the present with a redolence of William Faulkner’s famous remark that the past isn’t only not dead, it isn’t even past.
But while Christenberry's photos of his boyhood home in Alabama are haunted by the ghosts of the confederacy, or fever dreams of klansmen, the occupants of Eggleston's world inevitably are displaced bohemian types, wandering drunk or stoned into the frame (as in the various people featured in his sprawling 1970s video party, Stranded in Canton), and ultimately just passing through, as if all part of one big fabulous road trip.
Pictured: Eggleston's "Untitled"; Christenberry's "B-B-Q Inn"

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