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Reconsidering the Political Detachment of Eggleston’s Images

This exhibition of William Eggleston’s color photographs developed from negatives made between 1965 and 1974, reminds me of the tagline from the 1969 film Easy Rider: “A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere … ”

William Eggleston, “Santa Monica” (ca. 1974) dye-transfer print, 17 11/16 x 12 in. (45 x 30.5 cm) the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, promised gift of Jade Lau (© Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong)
William Eggleston, “Santa Monica” (ca. 1974) dye-transfer print, 17 11/16 x 12 in. (45 x 30.5 cm) the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, promised gift of Jade Lau (© Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong)

Los Alamos, a set of William Eggleston’s color photographs developed from negatives made between 1965 and 1974, reminds me of the tagline from the 1969 film Easy Rider: “A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere … ” The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s introductory wall text notes that the exhibition’s images were taken on a series of road trips with the photographer’s friends Walter Hopps and Dennis Hopper. Even without the explicit Dennis Hopper connection, Eggleston’s images evoke a Hopperesque alienation: they pay homage to certain American ideals, like the lone cowboy or the expansiveness of the American west, and yet when touching on themes of consumerism, poverty, and racism they maintain a telling distance.

In his well-known 1976 introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide, MoMA curator John Szarkowski wrote: “Whither the South? or Whither America? … The fact is that Eggleston’s pictures do not seem concerned with large questions of this sort. They seem concerned simply with describing life.” This formalist approach to viewing Eggleston has persisted, and the photographer himself has contributed to keeping any thematically minded readings of his photographs in check. In a 1989 Aperture interview with Charles Hagen, Eggleston said:

I’ve seen many pictures that are about the southernness of the South — the sense that it’s a separate culture with its own history, its own ethos. And I’d rather not be associated with those kinds of images … for me there’s no surprise in photographs of that sort.

William Eggleston, “Memphis” (ca. 1965–68) dye-transfer print 17 11/16 x 12 in. (44.9 x 30.5 cm) the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, promised gift of Jade Lau; (© Eggleston Artistic Trust; courtesy David Zwirner New York/London/Hong Kong)
William Eggleston, “Memphis” (ca. 1965–68) dye-transfer print 17 11/16 x 12 in. (44.9 x 30.5 cm) the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, promised gift of Jade Lau; (© Eggleston Artistic Trust; courtesy David Zwirner New York/London/Hong Kong)

Eggleston is rightly hailed as a genius of color photography and pondering the beauty of his images can overwhelm any other interpretation. For example, “En Route to New Orleans” (c. 1971–74) shows a hand stirring a drink resting on a plane’s tray table. Out of the window small white clouds float in a blue sky, and light streams through the glass, creating a shadow refracted in yellow and red. This burnt-hued reflection, filled with sparkle and depth, is exquisite. The image might touch on themes of American luxury (is it Coke in the glass?), the allure of alcohol (whiskey?), or the meaning of a hand’s disembodiment, but all interpretations deflate when confronted with the perfection of the photograph’s aesthetics. The same could be said about “New Mexico” (c. 1971–74), which shows a big western sky, fluffy white clouds set against gorgeous blues.

Read the full story HERE >>>> Source: Hyperallergic Reconsidering the Political Detachment of Eggleston’s Images