By Ken Tanaka
Yeah, Mike and I had a terrific time playing hooky last Thursday, bumpin' through the Eggleston show swapping stories (some even clean!).
Regarding the subdued lighting in the main gallery of this exhibit, yes it can be something of a distraction. I'm told it is actually due mainly to preservation considerations and, in many cases, contractual obligations. This is not our show, having originated at the Whitney, and the pieces were gathered from many lenders. I don't know the particular circumstances for these pieces in this show but I can say that environmental care (temperature, humidity, illumination) are often among the standard conditions cited in lending agreements. Since this is quite a long show (the Art Institute is actually its third of four installation venues) I suspect that such considerations are very much in play here.
But don't let the darkness scare you! Ours is perhaps the finest venue so far. Kate Bussard, the extremely talented curator who designed and oversaw our installation, has really done an exceptional job of filling two galleries of our new Modern Wing, plus a wall of the Griffin Court, with these works in a very thoughtful and logical design. (Plus I don't think there's anyone who knows more about Eggleston's work than Kate!)
May I also recommend the Whitney's catalog accompanying this exhibit? As Mike can attest, the reproduction quality of the plates is superb, no small accomplishment given the vast number of dye transfer prints in the show. It also presents a number of plates that are part of the exhibit but not on display here in Chicago. (Each venue has some flexibility in choosing what to display, although we're displaying the vast majority of the show's collection.)
Beyond the images, the book presents an excellent textual portrait of William, warts and all, that will certainly enrich most people's appreciation of his works.
To those who remark that they don't "get" Eggleston's work I can only nod my head in complete understanding with you. I originally didn't, either. I'd look at that tricycle shot, for example, and think, "So what? I could do that." But to those still "challenged" by his work may I offer three suggestions that might provide you with a new approach path to Eggleston's, and many others', works?
First, leave your shutterbug-ness at the door. Suspend your reflexive introspection of camera type, lenses, film type, and f-stops. Don't view the work through a photographic lens, so to speak. Just look at the images quietly. Stand in front of many of these images for a minute or two (an unusually long time for most museum visitors) and you'll feel the warm, humid breezes of the sultry Southern American summers from which so many of these image were taken. You'll begin to hear a distant cicada. These are slices of an experience rather than photos of a moment. It can actually get a bit creepy.
Second, look at as much of his work in one visit/sitting as possible. Like mosaic art where one tile means nothing, one Eggleston image represents merely a souvenir of his body of work. That's why this show, and its even more comprehensive catalog, are so significant; they present the whole mosaic in one place.
Third, please do not ignore the title of this show: Democratic Camera. It's fundamental to understanding the mosaic. Everything carries an equal visual "vote" to Eggleston's camera. A stray dog drinking from a mud puddle. Rusty lawn chairs on a dilapidated porch. The gates to Gracelend. A diffused shadow through a glass panel in a Tokyo subway. William Eggleston's eyes have no celebrity filters. Everything is a candidate to become a new tile in his mosaic wall.
If you can carry these three suggestions with you as you view this work I think you'll have a better appreciation of it. William Eggleston is not a genius, nor a artful purist. He's a fellow who has genuinely loved life, lived it to its fullest (sometimes overflowingly), and has had a nearly 50-year talent for capturing moments of that life free of technical inhibitions, with a remarkably consistent vision. As you study photography's past, and survey its present landscape, you soon discover that this is a very, very rare phenomenon.
So I urge everyone here, but particularly those who find William's work odd, to make an effort to see this show either here at the Art Institute of Chicago or at its next, and final, venue, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this fall. Failing that, I urge you to view the catalog. I think that, like Mike and like many others, you'll suddenly find yourself surprisingly regarding these images like old friends.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.