12 July 2011
For Now, William Eggleston
Photographs by William Eggleston, selected by Michael Almereyda. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
Who amongst photography enthusiasts wouldn't relish the chance to rummage in the William Eggleston archive? Biased as I am - William Eggleston was the first photographer whose work I ever studied in any depth, and he remains one of my personal favourites - I can't help but think that this library in particular, created by one of the medium's most prolific and original practitioners, would be a treat to browse.
Michael Almereyda, the filmmaker responsible for documentary William Eggleston in the Real World, was given just such an opportunity, and has returned from a year-long scouring of the complete archives with this collection of previously unseen photography, For Now, published by Twin Palm's Press. In the strictest sense, you could argue, this is not an 'Eggleston' book, carefully edited and ordered according to the photographer's vision. Rather it is another artist's response to his work and, as such, it self-consciously sets out to reveal a different side to Eggleston's creative personality. There is an element of the documentary-maker's investigative drive at work here, though readers looking for a sneak-peek into Eggleston's personal life will be a little disappointed - Almereyda and the publisher are vague when it comes to captioning these images, providing only a little anecdotal, contextual detail about particular plates in Almereyda's afterword.
The most obvious difference between this book and Eggleston's other published collections is the presence, in the majority of these photographs, of human beings, especially Eggleston's family and friends. People, individually and in groups, are often both literally and thematically central to the images here and the effect, especially in the wider context of Eggleston's visually democratic photography, is disconcerting. When the photographer takes a picture of his son, Winston, proudly presenting his collection of fireworks, there is a tension not only between childlike joy and danger, but between the photographers desire to document his son and his attention to colourful surface elements - the fireworks' vivid packaging, the garish floral curtains in the background - and visual puns (one of the fireworks is called 'floral bouquet'). Eggleston's great skill is, arguably, the ability to make images expressive and immanent without resorting to posed dramas of human actors or dramatically emotional close-up portraits. Where people do appear, therefore, there is a strange quality of mystery, a sort of distractedness, that inheres in the work.
It is also a quality of many of the works here that, beneath a surface kind of 'obvious-ness,' there is a resistance to reading and empathy that gives the viewer reason to pause. The photographs are warm in palette and reveal a powerful interest in the world but what, for example, are most of the subjects here even doing? Why does the photographer's young family appear in the forest, dressed in almost uniform-like primary colours and turned from the camera? The boy who stands near an open car door on an empty country road - what is he so carefully considering? The saturated colour and careful printing that are so characteristic of this photographer enhance these enigmatic moments of stillness, as do the number of photos somehow showing inarticulacy - figures in the middle-distance, children and figures sleeping. All of these factors encourage the reader to spend time with the images presented here; it is this kind of density that makes each photograph memorable, literary, even in some cases menacing.
In the face of this powerful work, it is somehow disappointing that the design of this book itself is not more distinctive. Luxurious and coolly classical, this large-format book gives the images room to breathe - the lavish use of white space contributing to the enigmatic atmosphere these works bear. However, there is for me some element missing that would ignite the themes explored by Almereyda's project - family and strangers, the personal and public, aesthetic boldness and private vulnerability. Nevertheless, For Now is a fascinating exercise in exploring a photographer's response to unusual challenges. While not the perfect introduction to Eggleston's work, it is a beautiful addition to and extension of existing anthologies.
This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 4th February 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from For Now, by William Eggleston. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.