Photographer William Eggleston captures typical Southern scenes in landscapes and social snapshots, but unexpectedly introduces an intimacy with the American South. Eggleston escapes a replication of the standard iconic imagery of the South by adding depth and artistic interrogation to the subjects he probes.
Most praise of Eggleston’s work emphasizes his democratic eye: no subject is too small or inconsequential for his lens. His photographs are a jumble of seemingly disparate objects and characters—a cocktail on an airplane tray, treasures underneath the bed, deteriorating signs, endless portraits of strangers—subjects that are otherwise overlooked and underappreciated. But a comprehensive glimpse into his career, provided by the Corcoran exhibit, demonstrates the artistic democracy he aims to advance. His photos reveal not only that any perspective is insightful, but also that no perspective deserves priority over another. Effectively, his work discourages the viewer from choosing favorites.
Eggleston’s technique—an insistence on color photography—reinforces his commitment to democratic expression. While the exhibit begins with rarely displayed black and white photos from early in Eggleston’s career, he comes into his own using color photography. He was not the first to experiment with color photography, but he was the first to lend credibility to the medium. Emerging at a time when color photography seemed apt only for advertisements, a 1970s New York exhibit of his work revealed the possibilities of work in color. The use of color helps Eggleston reveal that which is hidden or ignored in one’s mundane experience. Many of his photos are old enough to inspire nostalgia, but they do not date themselves to a point that renders them inaccessible to the viewer.
William Eggleston calls to mind a visual William Carlos Williams. His acute attention to detail is precise, but not restrictive. His work speaks to a plurality that deserves appreciation.
William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961–2008 can be seen at the Corcoran until September 20th.