September 14, 2012 9:24 pm
William Eggleston: American epic
By Mark Holborn
After 35 years since William Eggleston’s colour works were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Mark Holborn charts the full extent of the photographer’s achievement.
Nearly 25 years ago I was travelling through Hale County, Alabama, with my friend the artist William Christenberry. It was where he’d grown up and he knew each family and every mile of it. Here in 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans produced Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a portrait of white sharecroppers written in Agee’s almost Biblical prose accompanied by Evans’s black and white photographs. The book, though controversial in Hale County, was a primary source for Christenberry’s uncovering of his roots, just as Evans’s formal and often directly frontal photography of the south – its storefronts, shacks, churches and gas stations – shaped Christenberry’s vision through the viewfinder of his large camera. I even found one of Evans’s discarded boxes of early Polaroid film in a crumbling building that had belonged to a palm reader. In this part of the country, the kudzu weed was so virulent that abandoned cars were discovered in the undergrowth decades later. It all looked like a Walker Evans photograph, except the earth was red. I saw Christenberry in Washington, his home town, last spring. He confessed to a profound depression. The south that had nourished him had altogether vanished.