Secret Knowledge of Backroads

The Whitney Museum recognizes William Eggleston’s “Democratic Camera” with a new retrospective.

poster for William Eggleston

William Eggleston "Democratic Camera"

at The Whitney Museum of American Art
in the Villages area
This event has ended - (2008-11-07 - 2009-01-25)

In Reviews by Anna Rosencranz 2008-11-17 print

William Eggleston, ''Memphis,'' c. 1969-71, from ''William Eggleston’s Guide,'' 1976 © Eggleston Artistic Trust

Eggleston did it first.

Captivated by his surroundings, he turned his lens on the ordinary anatomy of life: the coffee shop table, the neon sign, the waitress, the television set. He shot in color when color was lowbrow. He shot in color so saturated it brought new vitality to a medium restricted by the limitations of black, white and gray.

A lot of things have changed since Eggleston’s first exhibition at MoMA in 1976. For example, there is no longer a stigma attached to color photography, or to shooting ordinary subjects who come from ordinary places. Our eyes have adjusted to the genre Eggleston created; photographers have adhered to the guidelines he put in place.

“William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008”, a new retrospective at the Whitney, is astonishing in its breadth. It is Eggleston’s most comprehensive show to date, beginning with his early career and including some remarkable black and white video footage, Stranded in Canton, which serves as a dark and sinister contrast to the vivid color on the gallery walls.

Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, Eggleston began experimenting with color in 1965, photographing the people and landscape of the South he knew so well, using friends and neighbors to create work that feels startlingly intimate and intensely personal. He is no voyeur, however. The man behind the camera is an insider functioning from the outside.

William Eggleston, ''Untitled,'' 1965-68 and 1972-74, from ''Los Alamos,'' 2003 
© Eggleston Artistic Trust

Eggleston works in snapshots, capturing an everyday image from an unanticipated angle: the back of a woman’s bouffant, a slice of creamy leg, a Cadillac viewed from below. Although much of what is shown in this exhibition was shot in the 1970s, the work feels anything but dated. Eggleston’s oeuvre remains fresh even though much of what is produced by later photographers can seem derivative of his technique.

Most of Eggleston’s photos are labeled simply Untitled, implying that they could be shots of anyone, anywhere. They are nevertheless specifically Southern in content and tone. A piece from 1976 displays a rural barn and an image from 1973 shows an advertisement for Coca-Cola atop a homemade sign for locally grown peaches. Despite the potential for sentimental overload, Eggleston is anything but photography’s Norman Rockwell. He’s more like the visual equivalent of a Raymond Carver story. Each image contains an unexpected ingredient: a cigarette burning in a woman’s elegant hand, a gun resting next to a man on a bed. These people command our attention and these photos demand a second look – only then do we recognize what we have missed the first time around.

Anna Rosencranz

Anna Rosencranz. Born in Rhode Island and raised throughout New England, Anna Rosencranz currently lives and works in New York City, where she writes and freelances in the arts. She is a graduate of the New School University and enjoys food, travel and the ocean. » See other writings

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