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  1. #1
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    William Eggleston in the Real World

    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?"
    Last edited by Michel Hardy-Vallée; 02-06-2007 at 09:59 PM. Click to view previous post history.
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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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. #3
    david b's Avatar
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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. #4
    David H. Bebbington's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Mitchell View Post
    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.
    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. #5
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by david b View Post
    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.
    In a nutshell, yes. But yesterday I felt like writing!
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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  6. #6
    juan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post
    Putting words around the photos is the job of the critic; the photographer just makes them ...
    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. #7
    jstraw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by juan View Post
    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
    This resonates with me, as pertains to the periodic discussions on APUG about titling photographs as well.
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. In velit arcu, consequat at, interdum sit amet, consequat in, quam.

  8. #8
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by juan View Post
    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
    Thank you, I won't charge professional services for you

    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.
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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  9. #9
    jstraw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mhv View Post
    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.
    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.
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. In velit arcu, consequat at, interdum sit amet, consequat in, quam.

  10. #10
    juan's Avatar
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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

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