William Eggleston in the Real World

Discussion in 'Book, Magazine, Gallery Reviews, Shows & Contests' started by Michel Hardy-Vallée, Feb 6, 2007.

  1. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    It's not easy making documentaries about photographers, especially those with an intense vision and a reclusive personality. Their behaviour can come off as cool or distant, though their work be rich and exciting.

    I had some high hopes for Michael Almereyda's documentary about William Eggleston because it is a photographer I have just started to discover and that stimulates me a lot. I could deal with a run-of-the-mill stills+action+talking heads just to get more information, more interpretations, and more insight of his work.

    From his works, it would be easy to perceive Eggleston as someone with a modern art sensitivity, a sort of enfant terrible or an articulate Pop Art wonder like Stephen Shore, yet he is everything but that. Eggleston is a very private and quiet man, an intense observer, and at the same time someone with a reserve more associated with the older generations. He reminds me of T.S. Eliot's Waste Land: extremely modern in its execution, yet only understandable by someone who knows the past, someone ancient. William Burroughs also comes to mind, in his combination of stern demeanour and explosive art.

    All of that makes Almereyda's decision to do a close-up portrait of him a more cinematically difficult endeavour. Eggleston is "at war with the obvious" as he says, but on the surface his behaviour on screen does not come across more than seeming banal, and that was a pity.

    The documentary follows him during various photographic trips (he uses a Mamiya Press, a Contax G2, and an unindentified 35mm SLR, for the curious ones), and also at the Getty Museum, where he receives a lifetime achievement award. Not much is said, many photos are taken, and sometimes we get a glimpse of his own home, his friends, and some chitchat with the people he encounters while taking pictures. There are interesting juxtapositions between the footage of picture-taking and the picture itself to give a great subjective awareness of his work, but they are few.

    It is a mixed blessing to see this very simple onscreen action. On the one hand, it proves to the unbeliever that photography really happens between the eye and the subject. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to stay attentive precisely because what really happens is not what is shown on screen, but what is in the camera's viewfinder.

    There are few people commenting on his work, which was somewhat surprising, given the immense recognition it has. I do not know whether this was a conscious decision or simply a result of limited means. Perhaps it would have spoilt the value of the documentary by imposing too much authoritative talking; perhaps not. Most of the commentary is from the director's voiceover, with the usual caveats of non-professional voice technique.

    The most important piece of "document" in this documentary really is the visit of the family album with Eggleston and his wife. She simply browse through an old album that is falling to pieces, and casually describes the photos. Those were among his first, all taken in black and white, and they are simply astonishing. They are not masterpieces, but they are so focused in their vision, and so simple at the same time, that they are the proof that something important is at play in this man since the beginning.

    To avoid making Eggleston look like a pure cipher, I want to underline two important things about him that actually render him deceptively simple.

    One: during a coffee shop conversation with the director, the latter attempts to analyze and theorize Eggleston's work in relationship to reality, representation, and the rest of the academic apparatus. Despite the director's insistence in trying to pin down what his photography really is about, he simply brush it aside very honestly and very simply. "I don't think you can analyze it." There is no battle of words, no long winded argument and artistic intention analysis; somewhere, intuitively, Eggleston disagrees, but he doesn't really care to put into words. Putting words around the photos is the job of the critic; the photographer just makes them and that's enough for him to care about.

    Two: After some drinks and talk, Eggleston puts on a record by Roy Orbison, the song "The Real World." He does not react much to the powerfully emotional song, but at the end says: "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
     
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  2. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    I find Eggleston a cypher. It could be that he is a one-trick pony (that incredible tricycle image). Although I never met him, I always have been particularly interested in his photography, ever since I realized that the famous picture of a red brick house in Memphis was actually taken while I lived there as a medical student. I'll say it again -- I am confused by his work.
     
  3. david b

    david b Member

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    This doc is one of the worst I've ever seen. It's 90 minutes of my live that I'll never be able to get back.
     
  4. David H. Bebbington

    David H. Bebbington Inactive

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    No need to be confused! Eggleston simply has the basic ability needed for great photography, that of seeing something interesting/striking/revealing/intriguing/significant where others see nothing. If that's one trick, it's a hell of a good one, and he's been doing it for a long time to very good effect!

    Regards,

    David
     
  5. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    In a nutshell, yes. But yesterday I felt like writing!
     
  6. juan

    juan Subscriber

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    Very well said. I've tried to think of a way to say this when asked what my photographs are about. I usually just point at the photo and say "that." I think I'll steal your quote.
    juan
     
  7. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    This resonates with me, as pertains to the periodic discussions on APUG about titling photographs as well.
     
  8. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Thank you, I won't charge professional services for you :wink:

    There's always a misunderstanding between the critics and the artists. Some people dismiss them because artists actually do not operate according to the concepts and principles the critics uses. Reciprocally, some critics chide artists for not having a clear "artistic statement" or approache. Witness the section in arts grant applications where you have to explain what you're doing and why.

    Weston and HCB still said it better than me: for Weston, composition was just "the strongest way of seeing", and HCB said that it is not the job of the photographer to etch the golden means in his viewfinder. The critic is the one who will demonstrate by A and B how a picture works. Her work is always post facto, but it's what illuminates and makes aware to a wider public one's work.

    In the DVD extras there is a really interesting clip showing Eggleston and Shore on the same stage with an interviewer. They are absolute polar opposites in the way they articulate their thoughts about their art. Shore has the historical awareness, the critical vocabulary, and the professorial voice to write a lecture about his work. His book The Nature of Photographs is a good example of this ability to translate pictorial process into linguistic understanding.

    Eggleston in contrast speaks very tersely, with long pauses, hesitations, and obvious lack of connection with the idea of explaining one's work. It's as if his whole intellect works in pictures rather than words, which I find fascinating. I think it would actually be dishonest to ask him to define precisely what he's doing because he understands it in his own private ways, and wouldn't benefit from someone making him more aware of it.
     
  9. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    Sadly, one aspect of receiving a fine arts education in an art school or the art departments of higher education, at least in this country, is to train students to bridge this gap and thereby placing an onus on artists to satisfy critics. I attribute this to the fact that arts academics occupy a troublesome middle-ground between artists and critics ("teachers and critics all dance the poot").This is in part due to the fact that higher ed has succeeded in making the transfer of this language one of the keys to the kingdom they protect and sell. Partly this comes from a sincere desire to professionalize and legitimize the arts but something is lost. It never occurs to anyone that no one ever asked Rembrandt to write an artists statement.
     
  10. juan

    juan Subscriber

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    Also, intelligence is frequently measured by verbal ability, or at least popular acceptance of intelligence.

    I wonder, from the description of Eggleston, if he might be somewhere on the autistic spectrum - maybe Asperger's Syndrome. A lot of Aspies think in pictures, and are uncomfortable in expressing themselves in any kind of social situation. Sometimes I think I have it.
    juan
     
  11. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    Interesting though. I have a friend, a videographer by profession...his son has Ausbergers...and I've been considering whether my friend might as well...the more I learn about Ausbergers the more sense it makes.
     
  12. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Indeed, I'll take an example from what I know: my former roomate is a photographer, and he's starting quite an interesting trajectory. I like what he does, and I think he's doing something really unique. But he is also the product of the university arts system education, having both a BFA and an MFA in photo, and working on an art history PhD right now. That's a lot of higher education for an artist, but it's becoming more and more the norm for someone wanting to become established in the artworld.

    While his photography is immediate and arresting, his writeups are incredibly obscure and theoretical, combining all you want from the academic wordbook. It's not that I can't understand it--I'm also in the academic world and know how to deal with the obfuscations of cultural scholars--but it's more that I see it as a barrier and a vicious circle, as you do:

    1. Critics explain deeply and profusely the work of past artists
    2. New artists coming in want to top their forebears, but do so in the terms of the critics, not in the terms of the artists
    3. They themselves become scholars of their own work (literally: the final thesis paper of the MFA is about your own work), acquainted with the apparatus of the scholars and critics, and build their own work on top of it, thereby making it more scholarly.
    4. As a result, an artist who does not talk the talk will not be let in to walk the walk, and anyone doing boring stuff that talks the talks gets gallery space.

    It's not an all black/white situation between academic and non-academic artists (let's note that in the modern context, this has a different meaning than was commonly applicable to "academy" painters!), and there is a lot of very interesting work coming out of it, but as someone who is distrustful of the intellectual validity of a lot of what is said in academia, I find it annoying.
     
  13. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    I think you and I are on the same page. I quit art school in part because of the premium that was placed on what I termed "the B.S." I worry about it now because I have a sibling at RISD.

    I decided that for myself, I was fully willing to try and explain what drew me to a certain image or subject...I was fully willing to explain the mechanics of how I worked...and while I did/do strive to make something akin to visual poetry, I simply decline to play the game, through secondary use of written or spoken language, any discussion of "meaning" or "significance."

    First of all, I wouldn't want to impose notions of meaning on a viewer. If I succeed, I'm eliminating the capacity for meaning to be evoked in the viewers mind, unencumbered and if I fail, I sound self-important and pompous.

    Second, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Yep, Twyla Tharp can probably dance about architecture but for most of us, using one medium to describe another is at best a fools errand and at worst an admission that the work can't speak for itself. This is why I'm so averse to creative rather than merely descriptive titling. If you need to hear me talk about a photograph then the photograph is a failure by the standards I set for myself.

    When I figured out the very "talk the talk/walk the walk" equation that you describe I became unspeakably disillusioned. And I say this as someone that can do the verbal gymnastics without breaking a sweat. My B.S. detector is just to finely calibrated to put up with all that.

    None of this is to say that there is no place for scholorship and historical perspective but that really should all be reactive to the workings of art itself and when the tail wags the dog, as it now constantly does...it's troublesome.
     
  14. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I haven't gone through art school, but I would dread it now from what I know. Academia is enough already for me.

    There is a big thing that happend in academia that I don't think was that beneficiary for either literature or the visual arts: semiotics. Semiotics is supposed to be the science of all signs, but in fact it's just the application of structuralist linguistic methods to everything. What it means is that there is always the hidden assumption that photography or painting fuctions as a language. But that's a huge mistake: it's confounding conventions with linguistics. Many pictures are understandable only under knowledge of certain conventions, but they have in no way the internal logic of a spoken language. Yet, that's part of the assumptions that are left unchecked.

    As to the artistic statement and the rest, I think it's a mistake to rely only on the artist to explain the siginificance of one's art. We all know about failed intentions: "in this picture I was trying to show the insufferable lightness of being, but in fact that's just an underexposed roadkill." Someone able to take a solid critical position can explain what works and what doesn't in a proper manner, and that's not necessarily the artist. Up to a point, it explains the "discovery" of artists, in the sense that the artworld is revitalized by the work of someone who did not participate in it, and thus bends the critical apparatus in another unforeseen direction.

    Oh, and "creative criticism", let's not even touch that with a ten foot pole! It's more like someone wanking over someone else's work and pretending it's an "encounter" with it when in fact it's just a spill on it.
     
  15. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    I agree with this and it's what I was getting at when I talked about it being reactive and the problems of the tail wagging the dog when the artists attempt to co-opt the role of the critic, scholar or historian.

    I'm not sure what to say about the artist that really feels that they have big ideas that they feel compelled to articulate. Some creative professionals, as a practical matter, must explain intent. Screenwriters, archtects, the makers of major, commisioned works, grant-seekers...anyone that needs to get someone to open the purse.
     
  16. erikg

    erikg Member

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    "I'm not sure what to say about the artist that really feels that they have big ideas that they feel compelled to articulate. Some creative professionals, as a practical matter, must explain intent. Screenwriters, architects, the makers of major, commissioned works, grant-seekers...anyone that needs to get someone to open the purse."

    I think this thread makes a lot of great points. It has often struck me that person who gets the grant is most often the person who can frame their pictures with prettiest words. The verbal rules the roost. I recall the snide and superior attitude the writers had towards the photographers at the newspaper where I once worked. The photogs were seen as just ignorant slobs who couldn't get anything across without the help of the writer's great prose. I think the truth is that newspapers would find it too frightening to print a photograph without a caption below it to lead the reader by the nose to the desired meaning. Even the simplest of photographs can be far too ambiguous for comfort. That is what makes this medium so endlessly fascinating
    As for art school, most of the folks I know who have been through it talk about the need for a period of time after to clear out all of the junk before they start making "real work" again. I think that fits my own experience. Not to say it wasn't worthwhile.
     
  17. joshverd

    joshverd Member

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    Anyone else live in austin? Eggelston exhibit is in town, check it out! Lora Rey gallery.