A photographer for more than 50 years William Eggleston is revered as one of the most important artists of the 20th-century in his field.
This, though, has not always been the case. Showcasing the use of colour at a time when black and white alone were considered the stuff of which fine arts was made, Eggleston’s 1976 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York drew some of the vilest reviews. More than that, critiques of the American’s devotion to the mundane, the everyday were swift and merciless. Blatant absence of any attempt on his part to entice the viewer only became fodder for more criticism.
Now, for the first time, over the next few months, at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), we get to experience the Southerner through his portraits, captured mostly during the 1960s and 70s in or around Memphis, Tennessee where he was born.
While the works have obvious contrapuntal rhythms — between colour and black-and-white, between studies of strangers and non-strangers, subjects’ unawareness and awareness — there is a felt sense of drama in every image, lurking inside postures or clothes, within eyes or shadows, however banal on the surface they seem.
In a grainy picture of Eggleston’s mother, for instance, shot with a miniature spy-camera on police-surveillance film, she is caught leaning forward with outstretched legs on bed, wearing life in her nightie, fatigue etched upon the languor. Flaunting bright, bold colours of blue and yellow, all the same, another frame shows an immaculate woman sitting by an empty road, staring straight at the lens, the thick, iron chain wound round a vertical support nearby echoing her austere primness.
The presentation at the NGV is lush, fetching, and elegant, giving the exhibits room to breathe. It is the inclusion of inscriptions for some displays, and none for others, nevertheless, that build intrigue.
We learn, for example, that Eggleston’s dentist-friend standing nude in his violent bedroom, between crimson walls (perhaps a harbinger for what was to come) that were splattered with graffiti, was later murdered and his body burnt in that house. One cannot help when we afterwards come upon a picture, unaccompanied by any message, but to wonder then about the narrative behind the coiffure and the angular cigarettes, and to muse on the possible facial expressions and dynamic concealed from inspection.
For all the controversy about his rebellion against convention around colour Eggleston’s talent with light and precision are in fact what distinguishes him. In the famous Untitled c.1975 his one-time regular model Marcia Hare lies on the ground, the lower-half of her floral dress and grass deliberately off-focus to create a dream-like milieu, sharpness gradually progressing up her body until the arm (with a camera) and her head come into stark clarity, an air of abandonment sprawled across her lids and face, above a line of ruby-red buttons running down her chest, like jelly-beans.
As much as an examination of the sitter, a photograph is no less a mirror held up to the artist. The emotional detachment with which Eggleston regards people on the other side of his aperture is most potent where a former girlfriend will forever be remembered for having openly wept.
Part of the Festival of Photography, William Eggleston Portraits is publicised as a social snapshot of “a time, place, and way of life”. This is true insofar as what can be derived from a telling work in which Eggleston’s uncle is seen standing beside his car, hand in pocket, gazing into the distance, his butler a few meaningful steps behind him, striking the exact same pose. Yet, another encounter — a young man, presumably a supermarket clerk, arrested in profile, pushing a trundle of trolleys, his resolve cast as silhouette on a wall — is not as unfamiliar; after all, some themes (like emotions, like the human condition) are enduring and universal.
Still, Eggleston does not consider himself a documentarian. Rather, he has said, his interest resides in “democracy”: not one perspective is less or more important than another.