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Saturday, 24 April 2010


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Filled with envy are I. If only the Vancouver art gallery would (could?) bring his work to town.

Thanks for your thoughts Ken, and for your suggestions at getting into Eggleston's photos. (I'm one of those who is struggling.) However don't you think that your criteria for appreciation would apply equally to many photographers out there who are using the camera to record their "eye" for what is around them? On viewing such a body of work the effect is cumulative, rather than based on any particular killer images. As it is with Eggleston's. But what is it about his work that distinguishes it from others?

I often wonder about this with artists in general - what is the selection process that makes them "great". Is it just curators, patrons, critics and maybe a little luck that decides things. There are, after all no objective rules for judging art.

I guess one can comment on any photograph. The importance given to the comment is most often related to who is saying it.

There is so much "The Emperor has lovely clothes" going on there will never be an end to it. The Emperor is dead long live the Emperor. Finding something new is the eternal search.

If you don't "get" it you're just unfortunate.

In the end only so many people can be famous.

It is basic supply and demand economics. Who gets chosen to be famous(good?) is a very haphazard affair overseen by curators and gallery owners.

There is a large number of great photographers but we don't have the time to recognise them all.

Many thanks to you and Mike for these informative and sensitive introductions to this exhibit and accompanying literature. At least I can pleasurably anticipate looking into the latter, and I'll use the viewing technique which you so knowledgeably suggest, Ken.

Mike, Ken, I am struck by the different ways in which you approach these prints (and certainly also others' work). Mike announces "it has been a long time since I found Eggleston challenging," and you cut straight to the subject matter, insisting that you can feel the Delta humidity. My own responses are more like the latter case -- subject matter first (isn't it weird how the brackish bayou water seems to come right up the Cadillacs parked for what seems like a funeral or fancy party?), then notice the wild color schemes, then wonder about the equipment used. But Mike, what do you mean by "challenging?" Are you trying to get inside the photographer's head, to see what he was trying to say or what he saw? Or to describe him concisely in an art school seminar?

Is this a subject that you would be willing to explore some leisurely Sunday?


Not only do I "not get" the pictures, I despair the fact that curators, who should know better, exhibit such pointless images.

I agree with Ken on many of his points. I too struggled with Eggleston in the 1980s. It was an era of Weston and Adams. Black and white. Formality and a monumental iconic view.
Eggleston is democratic and appears mundane.
But after looking at his work for decades, I finally get it.
I think he is a genius and disagree with Ken on that point. But he is a genius like Pietr Breughel. He is a master of the commonplace. But he is a profound genius and his work will endure in a way that Cindy Sherman et al may not.

FWIW, you can rent the Eggleston video from Netflix (as well as some viddies on other photographers).

First, leave your shutterbug-ness at the door.

I think this is excellent advice for the viewing of any photographer's work. I wish more people could mentally condition themselves to do it at will.

"Not only do I 'not get' the pictures, I despair the fact that curators, who should know better, exhibit such pointless images."

I know exactly what you mean. I bought a calculus textbook once, and it was all nonsense! Just a bunch of meaningless symbols. I didn't get anything out of it at all. It's amazing that anybody can take such pointless scribblings seriously.


I recently purchased "By the Ways: A Journey with William Eggleston", a French documentary that I highly recommend, despite the European formatted DVD. The film mostly steers clear of the type of alcohol soaked scenes in "William Eggleston In the Real World", but you do still get a sense of the man and Winston too (who, it goes without saying, has had an interesting and unique upbringing). Very enjoyable.

I believe the video you mention was shown on PBS a year or two ago - that's how my wife and I discovered Eggleston. It was quite excellent.

@ Richard: "However don't you think that your criteria for appreciation would apply equally to many photographers out there who are using the camera to record their "eye" for what is around them? On viewing such a body of work the effect is cumulative, rather than based on any particular killer images. As it is with Eggleston's. But what is it about his work that distinguishes it from others?"
I certainly do think that such a peripheral approach can help us to appreciate many other art works far beyond photography.

What distinguishes Eggleston's work from others? Without a specific standard I can't say. But I can reiterate what I remarked earlier, which is that Eggleston's relatively consistent vision over 50 years earns him a special place in the photo art world, indeed even in the more general art world.

I would like to add a fourth suggestion specifically for photo enthusiasts attempting to approach work they don't understand or like. In addition to leaving your "stutterbug-ness" at the door you must also relinquish your ego. You will make zero progress getting your head around uncomfortable or unusual material if most of your energy is being channeled toward resentment of someone else's notoriety above yours. Such an emotional cancer will not only inhibit your appreciation of others' work but will absolutely inhibit your own success and progress.

Yes, there are photographers whose work just doesn't do anything for me. Yes, sometimes I think some are pretentious, unskilled, and unimaginative. But in most such cases where I've had the opportunity to actually meet and talk with the artist, and hear their vision first-hand, I've changed (and broadened) my mind. I vigorously recommend making an effort to meet, or at least study direct statements of, artists whose work you don't "like" before your perspective becomes calcified.

Both of the above suggests are fundamental tenets of participation in the art community.

Okay, I guess I shouldn't be sarcastic. Sorry John.

Here's the thing, though. Maybe you just don't like Eggleston.

You don't have to like everything.


@Ken 'In addition to leaving your "stutterbug-ness" at the door you must also relinquish your ego.'

Sure - I would hope that I and many other "photo enthusiasts" approach work in a critical sense - meaning that you leave the whole business of "I like / don't like' outside the door. The use of the word "get" is probably misleading - in my meaning it results from an honest attempt to interpret and validate the work and probably shouldn't be conflated with "like" which is just a personal response. Additionally I think it's quite valid in the wider context of the art world to ponder why some artists achieve fame and other's not. It isn't necessarily borne from envy or jealousy as you suggest.

I have been in awe of Eggleston's work since I first laid eyes on it. It is all the more amazing in its use of the seemingly mundane to elicit such an emotional response, one that I can't even properly explain (the best kind, IMHO). To me, this is the purest goal of photography, without artificial restraints. I would love to see such an exhibit, but I doubt Taipei is on the list.

I would be interested to see a list of famous photographers who like Eggleston and those who do not, and why.

Eggleston was one of a handful of important photographers who finally brought color photography unto gallery walls in the mid/latter '70s (along with Shore, Meyerowitz, Sternfield, Graham, Parr...). Until then color photography had been pretty much B&W with color added. I don't think his latest stuff is anywhere near as strong, but it's not entirely unusual for artists who break visual ground to kinda wonder off in their latter years.

The thing I find most "democratic" about his groundbreaking work though, was that unlike the other color pioneers(with the exception of a smaller body of work by Meyerowitz) he acheived his color revolution with a 35mm camera- a tool that was readily available to most anyone.

Dear Ken,

I really appreciate you going to the trouble of writing this.

I satisfy the 'viewing criteria' you raised save one very important one: I've only seen a scattering of pieces, not a substantial and coherent body of his work. I can certainly see how that might make a difference.

Don't know when I'll get the opportunity to do that (and I'm not inclined to spend $40 on a book of work that I still may very well not like), but I'll put it on my mental list of things to do if I get the chance.

pax / Ctein

Richard: My remarks regarding leaving ego at the door were not aimed at you, or really anyone specifically. I did not make a clear demarcation in my commentary between my reply to you and my peripheral thoughts. So I apologize if they appeared to be aimed at all toward you specifically.


Well said. Your four suggestions for appreciate Eggleston are spot on. I have found that my appreciation for Eggleston has its roots in the visceral connection I feel every time I view his photographs. By way of example, each time I have visited the exhibit, I left feeling energize, invigorated, and thoroughly inspired. Such feelings are the direct result of the connection I felt with the images.

I like the fact his photographs are not always "perfect" in terms of sharply-leveled horizons, clean backgrounds, classical subject choice, etc. For me, this gives them a reality and truth I like. I also know that my taste in photographs and photographers doesn't always run with the herd of popularity. I would prefer to walk a mile to see Eggleston's photograph of a worn tricycle than to walk a foot to see a photo of a flowery scene from Tuscany. Now don't get me wrong: I am not saying that all the Tuscany photos aren't "good" (whatever that means to you), but rather I don't feel an aesthetic connection with them.

I must also add that I wouldn't walk for every photo of a worn tricycle. Anyone can take a snapshot of a tricycle, but only an artist can give it a compelling energy through his/her viewpoint, eye, and interpretation. It's Eggleston's viewpoint, eye, and interpretation which speak to me.

Ken: Don't worry - no offence taken

Thanks for this; I was already planning on being in Chicago on May 15th, and Amazon Canada had the catalog in stock. It will be here soon - ordered through the referral link, naturally - and then I'll get to see it in person. I love it when a plan comes together.

Mike, your apology for unwarranted sarcasm is accepted. What it revealed once again was the difference between art and science (I'm a physicist). The merits of art are subjective, often mere fashion, and following the herd. The merits of science and mathematics are that their truth does not depend on subjectivity, fashion and following the herd. The contents of a calculus textbook are correct, and if you cannot understand them that does not make the calculus any the less true. But one's judgement of art and photography is subjective - informed but subjective. I have been a photographer for over fifty years - I joined my first camera club in 1956. And I read widely on the subject. My library has well-thumbed copies of many of the standard works on the photography, though perhaps not as many as yours. So I think I have the right to express my opinion on the merits of photographs as I see them, without being subjected to sarcasm by you, Mike, or anyone else. I don't expect others always to agree with my opinion, but I expect to be free to express it without being rubbished by those who do not agree. I must admit that I was surprised by this response from the editor of my favourite photographic site. Perhaps you just got out of the bed the wrong way. John

The Almereyda documentary is available here:

and an early video piece, 'Stranded in Canton' can be seen here:

NB. Both versions are licensed and legal.

In 1976, when Eggleston's work was exhibited at the MoMA, in the catalog of the show Szarkowski asserted that the photographs were "perfect", to which Hilton Kramer, the art critic of the New York Times, responded: "Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly." I cannot improve on Kramer's response.

Dear John,

I bit my tongue and did not respond to your initial post, but since you seem to have missed the import of Mike's reply, let me elaborate:

You did not write a merely personal response, you declared a universal absolute when you wrote, "I despair the fact that curators, who should know better, exhibit such pointless images."

No one would fault you for not liking the work. You'll notice no one went after me when I expressed unsupportive sentiments at considerably greater length. That's not because I got favorable treatment, it's because I didn't claim universality.

What earned you a **very** mild rebuttal was that you did. In other words, although you recognize the difference between objective scientific fact (not 'truth,' I would note in passing) and aesthetic judgement, you expressed your aesthetic as if it were the former.

In light of your later message, I can entirely understand that your first one was misspoken and didn't express your true intent. But, absent the second one, none of us could know that. You obviously know better than to spout artistic absolutes, but unfortunately there are many out there who aren't half so aware. We had no way of knowing you weren't one of them.

The right to express an opinion, by the way, is not the same as the right to be respected for it.

pax / Ctein

I've been fortunate enough to visit this exhibet 4 times over the past month. On the first visit I asked myself what I was missing. On the second visit I started to grasp what I was seeing. On the third visit I begain feeling a real connection to many of the images, especially the older, warmer, analog prints. Now, after 4 visits I have to say I surrender....I'm a believer. You know, the same thing happened to me with bourbon whiskey, but that's another story......

...And what you did is what I mean when I say "engaging with the work."

It can be a powerful experience, can't it?


Ken / Mike,

Strange to say I was headed home to Scotland from New Orleans last week and the Icelandic volcano sent me to Chicago instead for 5 days. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Eggleston exhibition and photograph the windy city instead.

I come very much from the "This is "banal" view on his work. Nevertheless it was a wonderful and unexpected experience to see this very fine presentation of one photographer's work. The thing that was most important to me and more than a little surprising was the quality of his recently printed inkjet prints. The rationale we are given for "loving" his work is his innovatory and revolutionary introduction of colour. How significant for me therefore that modern technology eclipses the traditional processes. I refer to the portraits outside not in the main exhibition. The three inkjet portraits simply glowed off the wall.


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