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Memphis Flyer Wild Bill

William Eggleston gets an award -- and a book that doesn't do him justice

By Cory Dugan

JULY 26, 1999:  It was 23 years ago that Memphis' own Wild Bill Eggleston, to the rest of the world seemingly sprung full-grown from the head of John Szarkowski, turned photography on its ear.

"Eggleston's photographs often seem to have been taken not by a photographer but by a motorized camera swinging around the photographer's head on a string," ARTnews magazine opined on the occasion of "William Eggleston's Guide," the 1976 Museum of Modern Art exhibition curated by its photography director Szarkowski. "[P]erfectly banal," neo-Neanderthal Hilton Kramer croaked in The New York Times, " these pictures belong to the world of snapshot chic."

In March of this year, Eggleston was awarded the 1998 Hasselblad Award by the photography foundation created by the namesake Swedish camera manufacturer. Previous winners include Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Lennart Nilsson, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Not bad company for a motorized camera on a string. The award is accompanied by exhibitions at the Hasselblad Center in Goteborg, Sweden (which ended May 2nd), the Menil Collection in Houston (through September 28th), and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (October 26th - January 30th).

The Hasselblad Center, with Spano Publishers, has also produced William Eggleston: The Hasselblad Award as a catalog to the exhibit and a retrospective celebration of Eggleston's work. As an art book, Eggleston is a handsome enough effort -- nostalgically reminiscent of the original Guide, with its black binding, gold-foil stamp, and pasted-inset photo. Approximately 60 reproduction plates grace the majority of the pages, nicely edited and well-printed, a good mix of well-known images and seldom-seen gems; in the back, 112 small images provide a sort of lightbox version of the entire exhibition.

One would, however, hope for more and better textual (not to mention contextual) accompaniment. In a measly 17 pages, including footnotes and acknowledgments, the reader gets a quick and perfunctory editor's foreword, a very brief essay by Menil Collection curator Walter Hopps, a perceptive but rambling disquisition by Thomas Weski, and a nearly useless interview with Eggleston by Ute Eskildsen. Marred by typos, inept type design, and translation problems, the text is best taken with a grain of salt. Even the biography/bibliography in the back of the book is sloppy and inconsistent (but extensive; it even lists an article in Memphis magazine by one Sampson, Tim).

In Eskildsen's interview, the main problem is, of course, the interviewee and his typically elliptical meanderings between reticence and belligerence. Obviously still defensive about those bad reviews 23 years ago, Eggleston snaps at Eskildsen's use of the word banal: "I think, personally, that the world is so visually complicated that the word 'banal' scarcely is very intelligent to use."

It reminds one of his equally piqueish comments in The Democratic Forest, regarding the term "snapshot" -- "The blindness is apparent when someone lets slip the word 'snapshot.' Ignorance can always be covered by 'snapshot.' The word has never had any meaning."

Of course, both words are actually perfectly legitimate and can be used accurately by rather intelligent people. But their use is indeed usually ignorant in reference to Eggleston's work. His images may be common, they may be vulgar, they may seem at first glance undistinguished, but they are rarely banal. They are, at their best, lyrical and perverse and poignant. "I think of them as parts of a novel I'm doing," Eggleston is quoted in Hopps' essay. Sometimes Eggleston's novel is a poem; sometimes the poem is a limerick, sometimes an elegy. Sometimes it's an essay, sometimes it's a parable, and sometimes it's a manifesto.

And, yes, his compositions are a far cry from snapshots, even if one understands the term as an oversimplified (and overused) analogy. There is nothing accidental or amateurish in Eggleston's signature "grab-shot" technique; if a frame isn't actually the result of study and reflection, it is the product of a quick and tremendously skilled eye for color and cropped assymmetry.

Oh yes, color. That was the rallying battle cry 23 years ago. They couldn't accept color in photography. Odd, huh? Hard to believe. The critics liked to quote Walker Evans: "There are four simple words for the matter, which must be whispered: Color photography is vulgar."

Color was vulgar and "snapshot" composition was "banal" according to the disciples of Steichen. Never mind that the same sort of composition had been accepted in painting before photography was even considered an art. Never mind that Evans' comment continued: "When the point of a picture subject is precisely its vulgarity or its color-accident through man's hand, not God's, then only color film can be used validly."

There are few places in the world more vulgar than Memphis, Tennessee. And Memphis has few better, truer, or more poetic chroniclers than William Eggleston.

William Eggleston: The Hasselblad Award is a competent primer (visually), kind of like a "greatest hits" album. Readers (and, more to the point, viewers) would be much better served to find the real books: William Eggleston's Guide (Museum of Modern Art, 1976); The Democratic Forest (Secker and Warburg, 1989); Faulkner's Mississippi (Oxmoor House, 1990); Ancient and Modern (Random House, 1992); and Horses and Dogs (Smithsonian Institution, 1994).

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