Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Whitney: William Eggleston, Democratic Camera

I will tell you honestly that I am not very well-informed in regard to photography of any sort. There are several photographers I like, but I have never studied the art form and confess it intrigues me much less than painting, drawing, or installation. Of course, this doesn't mean I can't have opinions about it!

A few weeks ago I ventured to the Whitney to see the haps in contemporary American art. I had never even heard of William Eggleston, but figured if he had a whole floor dedicated to him he must be pretty special. The exhibit, titled Democratic Camera: Photographs and Video 1961-2008, separated this prolific artist's photographs by various time- and subject-related constructs. Included were several southern America-themed series, black and white portraits, selections from his visit to David Byrne's True Stories film shoot, a visit to Graceland, and some home video-type footage of his friends.

Eggleston is known for taking the seemingly mundane and unexpectedly immortalizing it as art. His camera captured everything from untidy storefronts to lonely diner patrons to vast midwestern expanses: very much the iconic low- to middle-class America. He also pioneered colour photography as an art form (then largely identified with advertising), experimenting with dye-transfer printing. He made good use of colour in most of his work, encouraging interest through high saturation and bold tones in the absence of specific focus or more structured compositions.

Here's one of his earliest experiments with dye-transfer.

I really enjoyed his portrait series, done in striking, high-contrast black and white. They were long and fairly large, housed in their own room away from the smaller colour works. They stood out to me instantly, partial as I am to figural subjects, but also because I felt that the inundation of Eggleston's colour photos in the other rooms was a bit much. I liked the works a lot but there were so many of them, and all packed together fairly closely due to their small sizes, it was hard to handle them all at once. I suppose there would be no better way to display such a large collection of small pieces, though.

Another really cool part of the exhibit was the selection from David Byrne's book, True Stories, a collection of images and writings he put together while working on the movie of the same name. Eggleston is pals with Byrne and photographed a lot of the Memphis area while visiting the movie set. Unfortunately the book is out of print and I can't find much information about it, or even which specific Eggleston photos are in it. Oh well, search for yourselves, I suppose.

I enjoyed his quintessentially American snapshots, glorifying simple places and objects by insisting they qualify as art. He doesn't do it in a documentarian way, he isn't trying to show high-brow audiences how the other side lives or how conditions vary across the nation. I think he just wants to show us the little things he finds interesting and noteworthy.

His work is said to employ "democratic objectivity"; he has stated that he endeavors to make it look "as if a human did not take them". I like that concept a lot.

I was much more swept up in his figural compositions (as I said, it has always held my interest more). He employs odd angles and interesting framing, often combined with vibrant fabric patterns (a lot of these are from the 70's and 80's, after all). He doesn't fetishize or beautify; the people in his pieces are decidedly normal looking, furthering his role as glorifier of the average. In his photographs, anyone can suddenly be a model, and is worthy of becoming art.

Unfortunately the exhibition just ended, but I believe it is traveling the US, so if you see a William Eggleston show popping up anywhere near you, be sure to check it out!

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