Vintage prints such as 1965’s “Untitled (dogs and cars)” and “Untitled (man in car)” already establish what Eggleston later called his “democratic” approach to images in which the overall composition mattered more than the image. individual object.
Some of the key images here are from the years of “The Democratic Forest,” a 1989 book gleaned from the thousands of images made in the 1980s that adhere to this aesthetic.
An afterword to this volume reveals Eggleston’s irritation with viewers who “even after the lessons of Winogrand and Friedlander. . . do not understand. . . They want something obvious. I am at war with the obvious. This last phrase is emblazoned on the gallery wall as a maxim of confrontation.
This is, however, one of the few concessions the show makes to a larger photographic story. Astonishing attention is paid to printing methods and provenance, as befits an exhibition dedicated to works from private collections. But viewers must discover for themselves the details of Eggleston’s devotion to what some historians like to call a vision of America. Eggleston himself, in the aforementioned afterword, described some of the work as being done “outside, nowhere, in nothing” and featuring “just woods and dirt, a bit of asphalt here and there “.
One of these photographs of land is included in this exhibition, and yes, it reflects little of the documentary obscurity of “the real America” evoked in Robert Johnston’s review of Eggleston’s London exhibition in 2002. He perceived in Eggleston’s photographs “the sordid underbelly of America and the sordid detritus of human life”, if one regards the cracked ground as sordid detritus.
On the other hand, there is a considerably insightful surrealism of the everyday in the pair of 1984 photographs, “Untitled (World’s Fair under construction, New Orleans)” and “Untitled (from the Louisiana World Exposition, New Orleans)”. Both are unconventional glimpses of the baroque excess of the last World’s Fair held on American soil thus far.
And the artfully framed clutter of 1980s “Untitled (Shoe Sale)” and the wreckage of the collapsed house in “Untitled (Memphis)”, c. 1980, certainly count as rubbish, but not necessarily “sordid”. The more ornate world captured in this exhibition shows just how complex William Eggleston’s life and work were.
Combine reviews like that of the Hayward Gallery exhibit with Will Stephenson’s 2018 biographical essay in Oxford American, which covers sensationalism alongside professional career, and you’ll begin to get an idea of how Eggleston is seen outside the world of the photographic community. . But the existence of offices in Memphis for the William Eggleston Artistic Trust indicates how well Eggleston understood its place within this community and the collectors who find a place in its ecosystem.
The exhibition at Jackson Fine Art is set against the backdrop of this community, but it offers an entry point into a much broader understanding of what Eggleston is for those who already have some knowledge of his career. Even without that, the exhibit captures echoes of the qualities that made Eggleston such a game-changer when he burst onto the scene more than 40 years ago.
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