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  • Mapping The Democratic ForestThe Postsouthern Spaces of William Eggleston
  • Ben Child (bio)

“I’m taking pictures of life today.”

—William Eggleston

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One influence William Eggleston’s photography acknowledges is Walker Evans’s, an artist whose work also searches out the everyday corners of his cultural milieu. Evans’s approach is marked by a “leveling of discriminations, between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and trivial.” Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936, by Walker Evans, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

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When the color photographs of William Eggleston first appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, they had no clear antecedents. The boldness of Eggleston’s palette and his disregard for the conventions of black-and- white photography were shocking; nearly all the major critics were scornful, and Ansel Adams wrote a scathing letter of protest to curator John Szarkowski, baldly calling Eggleston a “put on.” Using a dye-transfer printing method primarily associated with advertising, Eggleston’s images draw out the deep, frequently striking tonal potentials of natural colors. But within the tradition of photography, as critic Peter Schjeldahl succinctly notes in his essay on Eggleston, “color befuddles”—and Eggleston’s colors certainly did. One influence Eggleston’s photography acknowledges, however, is Walker Evans, an artist whose work also searches out the everyday corners of his cultural milieu. Evans’s approach is marked by an expansive, Whitmanesque vision that Susan Sontag describes as a “leveling of discriminations, between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and trivial.” And yet, in On Photography, Sontag finds little use for Evans’s ambitions. Photography, she holds, is no longer required to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent,” as Evans hoped it might be, and his photos could never achieve the transcendence they aspire to in the contemporary world, where the most effective photographs feature a turn toward surrealism. This is because, Sontag explains, in matters of political action the documentary function of realist photography threatens to lull viewers into a state of voyeuristic observation, from which only the surreal can startle them into movement.1

With their penetrating ability to reveal something like the surreal in the most familiar of scenes and objects, Eggleston’s photographs seem to simultaneously embrace and to reject Sontag’s conclusion, and the images that compose Eggleston’s 1989 book The Democratic Forest are perhaps the best model for this principle. Unlike William Eggleston’s Guide (1976), human figures are rarely the focus of these photographs, and when humans are present, they appear as fixtures in or fragments of the larger landscape. It is spaces and places that bear the primary burden of compositional meaning in The Democratic Forest, as Eudora Welty’s incisive introduction affirms: “All the photographs have place as their subject.” This is not, however, a simple narrative about the comforts of home. It is about uncovering the disconcerting realities of the commonplace, as Welty further asserts: “What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question; familiarity will be what overwhelms us.”

Although the images are a clear product of their place and time, we are invited by that familiarity to read them more broadly, as reflections and predictions of the future of southern spaces at the end of the twentieth century. With that in mind, we recognize that these images offer a compelling visual manifestation of the “postsouthern” theorized by literary scholars such as Lewis Simpson, Michael [End Page 38] Kreyling, and Martyn Bone. A term first coined and examined by Simpson in response to the work of Walker Percy—an artist who, like Eggleston, explores the emerging subdivisions and social orders of the New South—the postsouthern approach seeks to deconstruct ideas about the exclusivity of southern spaces and identities, a key characteristic of The Democratic Forest.


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Photography, according to Susan Sontag, is no longer required to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent,” as Walker Evans hoped it might be, and his photos could never achieve the transcendence they aspire to in the contemporary world, where the most effective photographs feature a turn toward surrealism. Cities of the Dead Cemetery Tombs, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2007...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 37-54
Launched on MUSE
2011-05-27
Open Access
No
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