William Eggleston, Untitled, circa 1988, vintage chromogenic coupler print, 7.5 x 10 inches
"William Eggelston's "Democractic Forest" and the Evil of Banality"
Although nowadays no one thinks twice about including photography as one of the fine arts, the medium took a long road to acceptance. The very objectivity that its early developers prized was held against it--even though rampant manipulation of photographic images began within a year or two of photography's birth in france and England around 1839. Indeed, an entire school of self-consciously manipulated photography--posed, lighted, soft-focussed, painted-over, and more--grew as part of an effort to make the craft seem less "automatic" and thus somehow more "poetic."
For decades documentary photography was regarded as a kind of "mere" journalism or record keeping, and it required intense efforts by early 20th century photographer Berenice Abbot, for example, to "rehabilitate" the reputation of great Parisian documentarian Eugène Atget, whose photos now reside on museum walls worldwide, though he himself thought he was making "mere" records.
From the 1930s on, however, the idea took that the choices made in framing a scene from life and controlling the exposure and tone to emphasize certain elements constituted a set of aesthetic controls that qualified the results as "Art." However, this label was generally reserved for black and white photography, whose capacity to emphasize spaces and volumes was said to set it apart from the "mere" literalness of color work.
Enter William Eggleston, born in 1939 in the rural Deep South--on a cotton plantation in Tennessee, in fact. Early on, someone gave him a camera, which fascinated him; encounters in the 1950s with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank--"documentarians" all, who now also grace museum archives--led to his own decision to "become" a photographer. But with one significant difference: Eggleston decided to work in color.
Color photography was not new then, but was considered fit only for illustration and advertising. But the subjects that Eggleston--a hard-drinking southern eccentric--photographed illustrated mostly the peculiarities of the American landscape and advertised the follies of our treatment of ourselves and the lands that nurture us. Through a long and possibly haphazard path, Eggleston became one of the earliest and most significant explorers of the meaning of sprawl and the American automobile-dominated landscape.
Currently showing at dnj gallery in Los Angeles is an exhibition of two of Eggleston's many series of work. One deals with Graceland, Elvis Presley's house in Memphis, now become a shrine to his memory; the other, called (by Eggleston) "The Democratic Forest," explores what I call "blandscapes," those emotionally-hollow spaces that constitute James Howard Kunstler's "geography of nowhere." Graceless architecture, bleak streets, junkpiles and trashheaps, parking lots, odd ends of cars and traffic signs, elements of control and disorder jumbled together with a total disregard for the souls or the bodies of the people that must inhabit these invisible prisons but whom you never see in his pictures--perhaps because there is really no place for them in the places they themselves have built.
Where Hannah Arendt spoke of the "banality of evil," Eggleston's photos quietly shriek of the evil of banality. Lost in discussions of the environmental impact of sprawl is its effect on the soul in daily life--an effect that Eggleston's images gently but relentlessly throw in your face. Perhaps more than any graph depicting watershed degradation, cancer clusters, or oil reserve declines, Eggelston's photos tune your psyche to the everyday horror we have made of America's streets, towns, and hearts in our worship of the automobile and of the throwaway society.
Photography speaks with light (and occasionally texts found in the scene or imposed on the image). Despite their frequent use of road signs, signs over storefronts or gas stations, and the ubiquitous advertising that poxes our American cities, these images exist within an aura of silence--the silence of souls that have forgotten how to speak. Epic poetry in light, they are as much elegy as song, and a warning of what we must leave behind if we are to find our lives again.