NYT: William Eggleston

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The Sacred of the Material World

William Eggleston at Metropolitan Museum of Art

An “Untitled (Memphis)” William Eggleston photograph, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a house dwarfed by a tricycle in the foreground, from 1970.
By KEN JOHNSON
Published: May 2, 2013

“It’s like ‘The Shining,’ ” a young man said to his companion, who agreed with a chuckle. I was eavesdropping as they talked about one of William Eggleston’s 36 transcendentally beautiful photographs from the 1970s and early ’80s in “At War With the Obvious,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It depicts a grungy, turquoise-tiled shower and bath alcove. Shot straight-on with deadpan objectivity, the image does have an ominous feeling. Shower scenes being a staple of horror movies, and Stanley Kubrick, the director of “The Shining,” being a master of highly stylized dread, I could understand the comment.

I thought it was interesting, though, that this viewer’s comparison was not to the work of another photographer like Walker Evans or Garry Winogrand, who, like Mr. Eggleston, made transfiguring images of ordinary people, places and things. Then I remembered the exhibition’s introductory wall text, which says that Mr. Eggleston’s work has influenced artists better known for work in other fields, including the musician David Byrne and the filmmakers David Lynch and Joel and Ethan Coen. Only one person mentioned, Nan Goldin, is a photographer, and the diaristic, snapshotlike aesthetic for which she is known is different from Mr. Eggleston’s more exactingly formal and rarely overtly autobiographical approach.

So my fellow viewer’s comment did not come out of the blue. Prompted by the wall text, I too found myself seeing almost every photograph in the show as a moment in some noirish, low-budget movie set somewhere in Mississippi, where Mr. Eggleston has made most of his work.

Looking at the bleached and rusted sign advertising Wonder Bread at the edge of a plowed field in a picture from around 1970, I imagined a man on the run from gangsters driving by and seeing it as a metaphor for his own broken-down dreams. In another picture from the same year, a weather-beaten tricycle looms gigantically in the foreground, dwarfing a suburban ranch house farther back: it’s like the start of a movie about a kidnapping.

The people in Mr. Eggleston’s photographs could be taken for characters in a Coen brothers movie. The skinny, sharp-featured woman in the bouffant hairdo sitting on the low perimeter wall of a parking lot and the balding man with the sensuous lips at a small airport are comical and vaguely alarming figures. That scene with the middle-aged white man in a dark suit and the black man in a white jacket standing behind him, next to a white sedan on ground covered by dead leaves: Could it have been an inspiration for “Miller’s Crossing”?

But photographs like Mr. Eggleston’s are not like movie images, which come in linear sequences, establishing explanatory narratives around scenes that would be mysterious, were they viewed in isolation. There is no before and after here, so the photographs remain provocatively enigmatic, which accounts for much of their poetic resonance. His pictures tease the mind, eliciting associations and possible meanings that swirl around them like bugs around a light bulb.

The 1974 image of a big, old flatbed truck bathed in the orange light of a rising or setting sun precipitates all kinds of unanswerable questions. What’s the story? Who owns it? Why is it parked here on a field of short grass? Why was Mr. Eggleston attracted to it? Shot from a low angle, the truck appears monumental and heroic, but if it symbolizes something, it’s hard to say what. Could it represent the waning of the American Empire? Maybe it’s a kind of self-portrait of the artist as rugged individualist: Mr. Eggleston is known for pioneering the use of color in fine-art photography back when it was considered good only for commercial, popular work. Most of the photographs here suggest a defiant, personal identification with the lowly, the downtrodden and the unfashionable.

Whatever Mr. Eggleston’s relationship to motion pictures may be, it is nothing like the one that has prevailed in postmodern art, thanks largely to Cindy Sherman, whose black-and-white “Untitled Film Stills” were staged to resemble Hollywood B movies. Later came Gregory Crewdson’s lavish color photographs resembling scenes from big-budget movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” This genre reflects on popular movie culture, but it also is a form of meta-photography: photography chasing its own tail and forgetting about real life. Such conceptually driven photography lends itself to easy explication; it teaches viewers obvious lessons about the mass media and modern myths. As the exhibition’s title suggests, Mr. Eggleston is not a friend of the obvious.

This is not to claim a contrasting visual innocence for Mr. Eggleston. His elegantly formal work is evidently richly informed by photography from Atget to Arbus. But it is about experiencing the real, material world, not photography and not theoretical abstractions. He brings to light those occasional sacred moments when something you ordinarily would pass by without a thought — a children’s swing set overgrown by weeds, an abandoned gas station, a basket of fake flowers hanging on someone’s front door — suddenly takes your breath away.

“At War With the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston” continues through July 28 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 7, 2013

An art review on Friday about “At War With the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, misidentified the state where Mr. Eggleston resides. It is Tennessee (in Memphis), not Mississippi.

Text courtesy of The New York Times