Sunday, November 30, 2008

William Eggleston at the Whitney

I have not seen all that many photographic exhibitions (Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, James Bidgood spring to mind) but William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008 struck me as the best I have ever seen. It was consistently eye-pleasing, thought-provoking, and heart-warming; it was also very funny in places. Refusing to rank or exclude objects from his democratic field of vision, Eggleston trains his camera everywhere, making what the exhibition justifiably calls "indelible images" out of common things. 

I remember a green-tiled bathroom, with a green bathtub. Though a little moldy between the tiles in the corner, the bathroom glows of cleaning. A light coming into the bathroom creates a chapel-like arch above the green tiles, and the bathtub becomes a baptismal pool.

A man in his fifties sits on a bed covered in a rubber sheet. He is balding, and he stares vacantly into the air of the hotel room. Furnished with standard furniture, the room looks empty. The tiled ceiling looks enormous and threatening.

A street junction bristles with signboards, many of which advertise a car rental company (?), Karco. The repetition of the word in different directions and sizes, the sharp verticals and horizontals of the signs remind me of a Cubist painting.

On a brown table top so dark it looks almost black, five plastic toy animals are arranged, walking to the left. Nearest to the viewer, a blue pig. Behind it, two blue goats walking one after another. Behind them, a yellow duck walking before a red raccoon. Their colors (dye transfer process) are voluminous.

Two girls on a floral couch. One, dressed in a velvety blue, is lying down, pensive as a Pre-Raphaelite maiden, her hands together in front of her. The other, leaning against the back of the couch, brown hair flowing down and curling in imitation of the floral pattern of the couch, is talking to her. A glass, half-filled with water, holds an orange flower, just above the couch. The photograph has the sumptuous suggestion of a Renaissance painting. 

In Graceland, a spotlight shines on Elvis Presley's piano, and changes its gaudy gilding into brassy mirrors. But there is no piano stool in the pool of light. 

And my favorite, on a dresser an old-fashioned tape-player gleaming dully of care and age. Behind it a drawing of a classical building, its facade a colonnade of columns. The photograph was taken in the 1980's. 

The photographs are, in turn, nostalgic, lyrical, transcendental, humorous, piercing, sympathetic, and precise. Their compositions are carefully arranged to appear spontaneous. Their colors richly, never ostentatiously, complement their subjects and moods. They are hung, in this exhibition, according to the books Eggleston published, but they are individual art objects, and not parts of any series, not stages in any investigation. That approach gives each image its uniqueness. This exhibition convinced me that photography is a true art form. 


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