06 January 2009

On William Eggleston

Summer, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background (circa 1970).
Photograph © Eggleston Artistic Trust.
"Eggleston is the opposite of a documentarian because he uproots his images from their anecdotal context. What is left after this removal? A structure of feeling. A good example of this is in a picture called Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background, circa 1970. In terms of color, it's one of the most restrained photographs Eggleston has ever made: pure russet autumn. The ground, here in Eggleston's hometown, is covered with dry leaves bedded on their own shadows. Although the camera's viewpoint is downward-looking, so that there is no horizon and therefore the sky is unseen, the day must be overcast; the sallow light seems to be draining right out of the scene. In the background, on the other side of the water, are some houses, but their distance emphasizes the feeling of isolation. In the central foreground stands a middle-aged white man in a black suit, hands in his pockets. There's a grim, somewhat lost look on his face. To the right, just behind him, stands a black man wearing a white jacket and black trousers. His hands are in his pockets too, but his posture is a little more relaxed than that of his white counterpart; and his facial expression is clearer, his thoughts seemingly turned less exclusively inward. To the left is a white car with the driver's-side door open. Through the glare on the windshield one can just make out its driver's head and a hand on the steering wheel. There's no road to be seen, so one might wonder what a car is doing here.

Eggleston has mentioned that this picture was shot at a funeral--which isn't surprising but hardly seems to explain anything. More to the point is how locked into place these people are by the checkerboard alternation of white and black--white car, black suit, white face, black trousers, white jacket, black face--which stands out so forcefully against their gloomy russet surroundings. Eggleston neither turns the scene into abstraction for its own sake nor uses it as the occasion for a sanctimonious comment on race relations--saying that our differences are transcended in the face of death, for instance, or on the contrary that our differences stubbornly maintain themselves even in the face of death, both of which would be jejune. Any clue that this is a cemetery, or any detail that would tend to make the image into a memento mori, is out of the picture anyway. Part of the power of an image like Sumner, Mississippi comes from Eggleston's refusal to editorialize or to simplify. The viewer's attention is forcefully drawn to its formal structure, but there's no leaving it at that; likewise, though we are not invited to moralize about the social condition of the people who inhabit this place, not for a moment are we allowed to stop thinking about it. The image draws these two aspects into a knot that only tightens as we try to wriggle out of it."
This is one of the good bits from a very thoughtful review in The Nation of the Eggleston retrospective up through 25 January at The Whitney in NYC.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Walter Dufresne said...

It makes no difference to my formal understanding of Eggleston's photograph -- set against a bayou off the Tallahatchie River -- but it is nonetheless astonishing that the handsome middle-aged white man was a juror who acquitted the murderers of Emmet Till.

14 January, 2009 23:30  
Blogger transport.editorial said...

hi! you might like to read this:
http://the-transport.blogspot.com/2008/11/single-shot-man-photographs-of-william.html

25 January, 2009 12:33  

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