- The Cruel Radiance of the Obvious
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I am at war with the obvious,” wrote William Eggleston as he reflected on his own photography in a brief afterword to his book The Democratic Forest.1 Like other seemingly simple, terse dictums, one could initially find Eggleston’s words clever but all too evasive. I increasingly come back to his words, however—or, rather, the words come back to me—and see them as a concise and profound summation of the stance of the visionary photographer, as a definition of the role of the truest of artists. Photography in its finest and most decisive moments is about those tired or ignored or unseen parts of our lives, the mundane and worn paths that sit before us so firmly that we cease to notice. It is, we might say, about rebuilding our sight in the face of blindness, of recovering our collective vision. And yet, the photographer is also in a perpetual battle to see beyond and around what he or she has already seen, to bring to their own work a “sovereign vision,” to borrow Walker Percy’s words, that is not obvious or redundant or derivative. This is particularly true in the American South where many forms of art—fiction, Hollywood movies, painting, popular music, to mention just some—have so defined and fixed our image of the region. The photographer must do battle with the mundane, as Eggleston so aptly characterizes it. And as war never ends, neither does the task to confront the “obvious” and make it new, make it sing, move it from ordinary and invisible to astonishingly beautiful and fully seen.
William Eggleston has both defined the American South within photography and refused to be limited by his home region or by being labeled a southern photographer. He moves amidst our oversized and dominant regional symbols, dodging the tendency of many of his fellow southerners to over-romanticize the South, often expressing cynicism toward his critics and others who see him as too defined by place. However widely he has photographed—and he’s produced work from all quarters of the world—Eggleston will always be best known for his debut book, William Eggleston’s Guide, which accompanied the very first solo exhibition of color photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and for the powerful imagery that he has produced in Mississippi, around Memphis, and throughout the South. He has stayed home geographically, but from his Memphis base he continues to expand his, and our, vision.
Critics and fellow artists derided Eggleston’s early color work as introducing mere “snapshots” into the refined world of art. Ansel Adams, in a letter to Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski, called Eggleston “a put on.” “I find little ‘substance,’” Adams wrote. “For me, [Eggleston’s photographs] appear as ‘observations,’ floating on the sea of consciousness . . . For me, most draw a blank.” Szarkowski’s proclamation that Eggleston’s pictures were “perfect” provoked New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer to respond, “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps.” Eggleston’s work gets much of its energy and brilliance—both in terms of color and its revelatory nature—from his sense of dynamism, of moving [End Page 4] from one minute to the next, one place to another, as well as his pictorial aesthetic that uses color and composition to render motion: “To tell the truth, these are composed in an instant,” he said to Michael Almereyda, maker of the documentary William Eggleston and the Real World. “The way I feel, if one waits to take the picture, it’s too late.”2