Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Boltanski - The Possible Life

I'm reading THE POSSIBLE LIFE OF CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI. Published in 2007, it's a conversation between Boltanski and Beaubourg curator Catherine Grenier. Boltanski's votive installations, archives and objects, revolving around the fragile polarities of memory and amnesia. identity and anonymity, have made him one of the world's most renowned contemporary artists.

I like what he says about theory, that his art is based on emotion and is not theoretical. He says, "I don't know what "art theory" means. There's no progress in art, there's just sequence. Art has been using the same five or six subjects since the beginning of time. Every artist talks about the same things as his predecessors, he just used the vocabulary of the time. It's no better or worse...... And there is little or no distinction between what I'm doing today and what painters were doing in the sixteenth century. Sure, I employ a modern technology - photography - but that makes no difference whatsoever".

Here is my photograph of Bolanski's work, Zeyt, 2001 (and lilies, my addition not his) installed at the Foire d'art contemporaine, Paris, in November 2007.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Auckland - some pictures I made yesterday...

... a sense of emptiness and alien territory. I'm thinking of what might have happened in these places and what might be going to....

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The New York Art Book Fair opens October 1st

Printed Matter, the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to publications made by artists, presents the fourth annual NY Art Book Fair, October 2-4 at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, Queens. The Fair previews on the evening of Thursday, October 1, followed by a Benefit. Admission to the fair is FREE.

The Fair hosts over 200 international presses, booksellers, antiquarian dealers, and independent artist/publishers presenting a diverse range of the best in contemporary art publications.

Philip Aarons, Chairman of the Board at Printed Matter, said: “Printed Matter's NY Art Book Fair re-establishes New York City as the heart of art publishing. This extraordinarily democratic and far-reaching project brings together ground-breaking and unique exhibitors, speakers, and events from twenty-one countries.”

Printed Matter presents a special exhibition of books and posters by Richard Prince, as well as The Contemporary Artists’ Books Conference, cosponsored with the Art Libraries Society of New York (ARLIS/NY); and The Classroom, a full-schedule of informal artist talks, performances, and screenings.

PREVIEW: The Fair opens for preview October 1, 6-8 PM at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center.

2nd Cannons Publications
38th Street Publishers
A-Jump Books
A.R.T. Press (Art Resources Transfer, Inc.)
Adam & Kate Davis, Booksellers
AM Bruno
Amy Prior / Juncture
Archive Books/Archive Journal
Art Lies
Art Metropole
Art Papers
Artbook / D.A.P.
Artists Space
Banana Books
Bernhard Cella, Salon für Kunstbuch
Bidoun Magazine
Black Cat Bones
Boekie Woekie
Book Works
Booklyn Artists Alliance
BravinLee programs
Bywater Bros. Editions
Böhm/Kobayashi Publishing Project
Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art
Casa Vecina / Libros de la Meseta
Casco Office for Art, Design and Theory
Catia Whitmore
Central Booking
Charles Clough
Charles Lane Press
Conundrum Press
Dalhousie Art Gallery
Dashwood Books
Dazibao, centre de photographies actuelles
de Appel
Decathlon Books
Decode Inc.
Deitch Projects
Dia Art Foundation
Dobbin Books
Ediciones La Cartonera / México
Ediciones Menta
Edition Patrick Frey
Editorial Diamantina
Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)
Emily Carr University Press/Charles H. Scott Gallery
ese diseño
Evil Twin Publications
Exit Art
Eyelevel Gallery
Galería Myto
Gallery 360
Gottlund Verlag
GRAPHIC (Propaganda)
Gregory R. Miller & Co.
Harper's Books
Hassla Books
Hecho en Oaxaca
Hurricane Publishing
Idea Books
Islands Fold
J&L Books
j. morrison
Jeremy Sanders @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller
Joachim Schmid
John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller
Jörg Koopmann
Kodoji Press
La Curtiduría
Le Edizioni Della China
Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery
Lines & Shapes
Lubok Verlag
Marcus Campbell Art Books
Mark Wangberg
MER. Paper Kunsthalle
Metropolis M
MFC-Michele Didier
ModLit Books
MoNDao Ediciones
Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery
Mörel Books
Name Publications
No Coast
NSCAD University Press
Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA)
onestar press / Three Star Books
Paula Cooper Gallery
Peres Projects
Plug In ICA/Plug In Editions
Point d'ironie
powerHouse Books
Presentation House Gallery
Primary Information
Princeton Architectural Press
Printed Matter, Inc
Pyramid Power
r.a.m. publications + distribution, inc.
Red Fox Press
Regency Arts Press
Regroupement des centres d'artistes autogérés du Québec (RCAAQ)
Revolver Publishing by VVV
RGAP (Research Group for Artists Publications)
Ryan Dodgson Illustration
Saint Mary's University Art Gallery
Schaden.com Buchhandlung
Silverbridge Editions
Soberscove Press
Sternberg Press
steven harvey fine art projects
Stop Over Press
Straight to Hell: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts
Susan Happersett
Susan Mills
Taller Ditoria
TBW Books
The Art Newspaper
The Center for Book Arts
The Green Box
The Ice Plant
the journal
The Thing
Tony Calzetta / Fabulous Fictions
Tumbona Ediciones
Ugly Duckling Presse
Unas Letras
Visual Studies Workshop Press
Volker Zander
Werkplaats Typografie
Western Exhibitions
White Columns
Witte de With
Women's Studio Workshop
Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E.
Zing Magazine
Zucker Art Books

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Robert Frank's "The Americans," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sadness seems to trickle through the 83 photographs in his classic 1959 book, “The Americans,” his disturbed and mournful song-of-the-road portrait of a new homeland and the subject of a 50th-anniversary exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Once rejected for its pessimism, now sanctified for its political prescience, the book distills heartache, anger, fear, loneliness and occasional joy into a brew that has changed flavor with time but stayed potent. You may not know exactly what you’re imbibing when you pick up “The Americans” for the first time, or when you visit the Met show, but a few pictures in, and you’re hooked.

Some images you will recognize even if you never knew where they came from: a shot of a woman standing in an apartment window, her face hidden by a windblown American flag; a middle-aged black woman, maybe a nurse, holding a baby with skin so pale it looks extraterrestrial.

Mr. Frank took those pictures in Hoboken, N.J., and Charleston, S.C. The photograph used on the cover of the book’s first American edition was from New Orleans. It’s an exterior shot of a trolley car seen from the side, its passengers seated in the social order that prevailed in a pre-civil-rights, pre-feminist, pre-youth-culture nation.

From left to right we see, one behind the other, a white man, a white woman, a white boy, a white girl, a black man, a black woman. The white woman looks with sharp-eyed suspicion at the camera; the white boy, impassive but curious, sees it too; so does the black man, who seems to be on the verge of tears.

I’m reading feelings in here, but I think Mr. Frank was reading them into his subjects, which is why his pictures, separately and together, feel so personally laden. At this point, in 1955, he was on the first leg of a transcontinental car trip that would last 10 months and take him 10,000 miles. He was still learning the American language, the language of race and class, a stranger in a strange land that was getting more baffling.

How did he come to be there? Born in a German Jewish family in Zurich in 1924, he was interested in picture making early on. He apprenticed with several leading local photographers in his teens; in his early 20s he was doing promising work, examples of which are in the Met show. But he was temperamentally restless and impulsive. He needed to leave home, so he headed for New York.

He was restless there too. He landed a job at Harper’s Bazaar and quickly ditched it. He left for a photography jaunt to Central and South America, came back to New York, got married, had a child, went to France and Spain for a spell, returned to New York again, had another child.

Socially, his impulsiveness worked for him. He was good at introducing himself to people. That’s how he met Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and how he later met Walker Evans, who hired him as an assistant and more or less arranged for him to get a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955. That gave Mr. Frank enough money to travel the country, photographing as he went, with the goal of producing a book.

He made three separate car trips of different lengths, the first from New York to Detroit, the second from New York to Savannah, Ga. The third trip, in a secondhand Ford Business Coupe, was the big one. It took him, with many stops, through the Deep South and Texas to Los Angeles. There, joined by his family, he took a breather before heading back east alone, through Montana to Chicago, then to New York.

The New Orleans picture came fairly early in this trip. It was a miracle that he got it. He was focused on shooting a parade when he suddenly swung around, and there was the trolley. Many pictures happened that way. He was in the right place at the right time, but he also had the right reflexes, a dancer’s combination of precision and abandon. And he had the right instincts or, maybe, attitude. For some people a camera is armor. For Mr. Frank it was an antenna, a feeling and thinking device.

Once back in New York at the end of his travel year, he carried his instincts and reflexes into the darkroom and onto the editing table. From the many thousands of pictures he had snapped, he made hundreds of contact sheets; the Met has a fascinating selection. And from these he pulled around a thousand working prints, which he tacked to his studio walls and slowly, slowly whittled down to 100, to 95, to 86, to 83.

That final selection forms the bulk of the show “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ ” which was organized by Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Jeff L. Rosenheim of the Met’s photography department. As in the book, the sequence begins with the Hoboken flag and unfolds in four sections, distinguished by mood and tempo.

Images of flags, cars and jukeboxes set up a light, steady under-beat for recurring character types: socialites and politicians, bikers and retirees, urban cowboys, hot-to-trot teenagers and just plain folks. A starlet in Hollywood strikes a pose; three drag queens vamp on a New York City street. A hard-eyed waitress glares into space; a hotel elevator attendant dreams a pensive dream as people in furs and suits blur past her.

Occasionally figures appear in landscapes, as in an image of an itinerant preacher kneeling, robed in white, beside the Mississippi River. Just as often, landscapes are all but empty. A Montana mining town seen from a window looks blasted and abandoned; a stretch of New Mexican highway, shot from ground-level, road-kill perspective, is a blank line to the horizon until you spot a speck of a car.

A similar road appears in another photograph, though here the car is parked right in front of us, its headlights on. Through the windshield we see dim figures — Mr. Frank’s first wife, Mary, and their two children — bundled together for warmth. Whether they are asleep or sitting in open-eyed exhaustion is hard to say, they are so shadowy, so near but so far away.

Theirs is the concluding image in “The Americans,” and it is true to the spirit of the sequence as a whole. It is not a perfect picture in any conventional way. Its balances are odd; its atmosphere is blurry and grainy, as if with static or dust. Like many of Mr. Frank’s pictures, it isn’t about an event but about an uncertain moment between events, when emotional guards are down, and dark feelings can flow in. In the way a film still does, it seems to call for a larger narrative to make sense. (In 1958 Mr. Frank announced that he was giving up still photography for films, and he made many.)

The ostensibly throwaway style of this and other pictures had a huge influence, from the 1960s forward, on young artists who understood that traditional models of resolution and wholeness, in art as in life, are unstable, if not illusory. That “The Americans” could embody this concept while being a virtuosic feat of formal discipline and psychic endurance only increased its exemplary status, except perhaps to Mr. Frank himself, now 84, whose attitude toward his book has tended to grow more antagonistic with its critical and commercial success.

And how does the “The Americans” come across today? In the nominally post-racial Obama era, its political urgencies feel less immediate than they once did, but also prophetic. Its mournful tenderness, without being sentimental, seems deeper than ever. The days and nights it records are more than a half-century gone. The preacher, the nurse, the woman hidden by the flag, the sharp-eyed woman and the tearful black man on the trolley are, you imagine, gone.

What’s left is a still-strange country and a book of pictures by a foreigner who came to America impulsively, traveled our roads restlessly, and by not fully knowing our language heard it correctly and told us, the way we could not, truths about ourselves.

“Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ ” remains through Jan. 3 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org.

By Holland Cooper, The New York Times, September 25, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Two book works - On the Road and From the Air

Here are two totally different but equally interesting book works that I have just come across.

The first from Steidl, is a fresh look at Kerouac's On The Road.
Ed Ruscha has designed the book, illustrating Kerouac's text with his own photographs. The text is printed in Letterpress on 220g Hahnemühle paper and every one of the 55 photo-plates is blind embossed and tipped in by hand to create an exquisite and original edition of On the Road.

Co-Published with the Gagosian Gallery in edition of 350 copies, 35 APs and 5 PPs, signed and numbered by Ed Ruscha. 55 Photos on Fuji Crystal Archive Paper tipped in by hand. Leather-bound hardcover delivered in a leather-covered slipcase 228 pages, 44.5 cm x 32.5 cm £6,250.00 / $10,000.00 / €6,800.00

The second book, Dunedin From The Air I found on New Zealand's Trade Me site. It's a delightful little book of aerial photographs of Dunedin taken by one V.C. Browne. Of 28 pages and unknown edition size, the book was published by the The Pegasus Press and printed at The Caxton Press in 1948. The book cost me $21.00.
I particularly like the modernist cover design. Not to mention the price.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sotheby's New York - photographs, Friday October 9th

Another good reason to be in New York right now would be to attend Sotheby's upcoming photography sale. The sale features over 243 lots a selection of masterworks by some of the most important and innovative of 20th-Century photographers. Paul Outerbridge's Nude with Sculpture Head combines the photographer's technical rigor with his distinctive, frequently Surreal, aesthetic. Man Ray's Lee Miller and Friend links the Surreal with the sensual. In Eleanor, Harry Callahan creates a multi-layered double-exposure study of his wife and muse. Work by László Moholy-Nagy, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Pierre Dubreuil illustrates the range and diversity of the Modernist impulse in photography. Contemporary work includes images by Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Peter Beard, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Helmut Newton.

Highlights for me would be the Andre Kertesz photograph Chez Mondrian, Paris (24.1 x 18.1 cm signed and dated in pencil on reverse, estimate 5-7,000 USD) and the Hiroshi Sugimoto image, Ohio Theatre, Ohio (41.9 x 54.6 cm 19/25 signed in pencil on the mount, estimate 20 - 30,000 USD). You can view an electronic catalogue on line at http://catalogue.sothebys.com

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Saturday - walking, looking, shooting....

... set off today for my usual inner city walk.....to think and shoot. Down Jacob's Ladder to St Marys Bay, through the Tank Farm and to the Viaduct, up Queen Street to K Road, down Ponsonby Road and home. A grey, flat light today. Wintery but without the cold. Here are three pictures I made.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Although all individual book-works, I have just produced an edition of just 15 sets of my 4 artist books that were published last year under the FAQEDITIONS imprint. The books were TEXT BOOK, CHINA STORY, SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR and I LOOK AT YOU, YOU LOOK AT ME. This boxed edition will be available from Schaden.com Cologne, Florence Loewy Books by Artists, Paris and at Paris Photo in November. And available too, direct from me. The edition includes a limited edition print.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Auckland - Spring day, walking.....

.....walking yesterday under a bright blue sky through the nearby inner-city-suburb of Grey Lynn. Green now with new growth and trees everywhere enjoying the brighter days as much as me. These caught my eye....

Monday, September 14, 2009

John Baldessari says, "why make a photograph if somebody has already made one just like it."

And he's right.... and this thought struck me on Sunday seconds after I saw the man on Devonport's Mount Victoria flying his model plane. My first and immediate thought was to recall Alec Soth's powerful front cover picture, Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, from the first edition of his wonderful book Sleeping by the Mississippi. "No, don't do it", I thought.... but I did. I talked to my plane flyer and told him about Alec's picture and his book. Surprisingly, he knew the book and the picture. This heightened my resolve and here is my picture along side Alec's.

Yes, they are the same but also quite different. My picture is about the pleasure of flying and enjoying the day. I like the figure on the slope taking in the view and a touch of sunshine hitting the harbour underneath the dark clouds.
Alec's picture is stranger and more mysterious. Charles seems obsessive and a little odd. There is a strong back-story here. I like the house pushing in from the side and the surrounding junk. And the snow seems at odds to the business of flying those planes.

The other big difference is to do with process. Alec's picture was made with a beginning and end in mind, his book and what he knew would work with that project. My picture sits in isolation, no context and no real idea behind it and no intention as to how I might use it.

In comparing these pictures, it's really all about the level of mystery. This quote from Magritte sums it up, "the mind loves the unknown, it loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

French photographer Willy Ronis dies aged 99

PARIS, (Reuters) - Willy Ronis, the French photographer famous for his black and white images of ordinary people in post-war France, died aged 99 on Saturday.
Born in Paris in 1910, Ronis became one of the Groupe des XV, or group of fifteen, that included fellow photographer Robert Doisneau, that defended photography as a true art form.

A number of his snapshots of working-class Paris became classics, such as his image of a boy running with a baguette under his arm. Other famous photos include one of his wife nude leaning over a sink by an open window, called Provencal Nude.

"This representative of the humanist school, this engaged man, who in 1983 had the generosity to bequeath his works to the French state, did much more: he recorded, for each one of us, the poetry of our everyday lives and saved it from being lost in time," Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said in a statement.

"This immense narrator gave us this gift which will last forever," Mitterrand added.

A retrospective of Ronis's work was held at the Arles festival, in France, this summer.

According to museum curator Marta Gili, cited on the festival website, Ronis explored the life of the destitute with "photographs of workers, picket lines and passionate unionist harangues in the Citroen and Renault factories in 1936 and 1950, the St Etienne mines in 1948 and the streets of Paris in 1950."

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement Ronis had chronicled "post-war social aspirations" and was a "poet of a simple and joyful life."

"With the passing of Willy Ronis, the twentieth century moves still further away, but we retain a unique account of it thanks to his humanist curiosity and his inspired gaze," the statement said. (Reporting by James Regan)

Friday, September 11, 2009


My very latest book.... SMALL ANARCHIES FROM HOME has arrived. I'll be sending copies out in a day or so to all those who, responding to a post on this blog, correctly guessed the location of the two cities, my two homes. Auckland and Paris of course. Book cover photographed here with the cover picture in behind, the view from my studio window. In Auckland not Paris. And here too some of the spreads.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


My new book, SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR, published in a limited edition of 300 copies, will be launched on Thursday October 1st, 6pm at WORLDMAN, Little High Street, Auckland CBD.
Picking up on the idea that nothing is as it seems this book investigates the premise that we all think about sex every six seconds. Or do we? Here are some images from the book. And you can get a special WORLD T Shirt at the same time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Short History of Photography wins award for best cover design

Designed by typographer, designer and friend Catherine Griffith, tonight my book A Short History of Photography, published in New Zealand by Random House as a co-publication with British publisher Dewi Lewis, won the 2009 Publishers Association of New Zealand Award for best cover design.

The judges had this to say about Catherine's design.
"The default cover seemed to be one with a strong image and some neutral, but embossed type. We were not looking for this type of cover, but rather ones that grabbed us through the intelligent application of design. Catherine Griffith's cover for A Short History of Photography is the perfect example of this, and was actually the clearest winner in any category. It is visually striking and conceptually brilliant. Having "a history of photography" without a photograph on the cover is itself breaking every unwritten rule - and yet it was necessary. Harvey Benge's photos are a collection of pieces that pay homage to the greats of photography. As such, no one image could encapsulate the book. Instead, the cover acts as the index so that, whilst browsing the images, one turns back to the list of names on the cover for clues as to who is being referenced. It is a novel concept - but one that came out of a clear and logical analysis of the problem posed by a unique book. Griffiths even manages her own take on the concept with some typographic homages of her own.... A Short History of Photography elicits a broad smile when you realise what is going on."

It was a pleasure to work with Catherine on this project and accept the award on her behalf. As I type Catherine is in Paris enjoying the last days of summer.

Auckland - New York and back

I've just got off a SKYPE call with my film-maker friend Florian H who has recently moved from Auckland to NYC to make films and hangout. It's around 5.30pm on Wednesday afternoon in New York and in Auckland 9.30am on Thursday morning. As we talked I made these shots of my screen. The street reflected in Florian's glasses is Grand St in the Bushwick area. How cool is that...... what a crazy wonderful world!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


The catalogue arrived today for the show THE PAINTING OF MODERN LIFE which I saw at The Hayward in London in November 2007. The show is essentially about painters that reference and translate photographic imagery in their work. In an essay by Martin Herbert, Rehearsing Doubt: Recent Developments in Painting-After-Photography the writer has this to say in his opening paragraph.

""The photograph is never anything but an antiphon of "Look", "See", "Here it is", it points a finger at certain vis-à-vis." That is Roland Barthes. "Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible; giving it form and bringing it within reach. And that is why good paintings are incomprehensible." That is Gerhard Richter.
Now, harmonise these two statements - written a year apart, in the early 1980s, and not without currency today - with regard to paintings based on photographs. Something, naturally, has to give. For the painting to succeed, the photograph catapulted into Richter's empire of unmanageability must surrender its claim to simple veracity, to here-it-is-ness."

My thoughts are these...
And what for a photograph to succeed? Do photographers give up on the incomprehensible and stick to making images that say nothing more than "Here it is"? Do we only work within the parameters of "the document"? To me there can be just as much non-visuality and hidden meaning in a photograph. A good photograph. And after all, just how strong is the photographs claim to veracity?

Here are some photographs I made in my backyard today. Not to work with this posting, but simply because I really don't like to make a post without also including some photographs. Go figure..... incomprehensible really....

Auckland, the first day of Spring....

... here is a photograph I made this morning on this beautiful first day of Spring. It's the Kowhai tree outside the Lees Institute Library in St Marys Road, just around the corner from my house. The picture is for all my absent Kiwi friends in London, Paris, Berlin and New York, about to head into a northern winter.....

Point and Place: William Eggleston's Vibrant Spaces

A review by Barry Schwabsky of Eggleston's Whitney retrospective. From The Nation, January 12, 2009

After having spent some hours at the Whitney Museum among William Eggleston's photographs, I couldn't stop my mind's eye from framing each passing place as an interesting photograph. I was in a taxi on the way to the airport and thinking hard about walking straight to the duty-free shop to see what they had in the way of cameras. But in the end, I knew better than to waste my money. I've been around images long enough to know what illusions they can work. And having memorized Henry James's caveat to writers--"The art of representation bristles with questions the very terms of which are difficult to apply and to appreciate"--I recollected in time that it applies to the art of the camera as well as to that of the pen. Most people realize there's more to, say, making music than just wanting to; you need some technique to mediate your desire. Writing seems a bit more available because, after all, language is everybody's tool kit. But photography is even more seductive. Hasn't the technique been built into the technology? Just point and shoot.
Calling his grand and gorgeous retrospective at the Whitney "Democratic Camera," Eggleston might seem to imply that anybody can do it. (The exhibition can be seen there through January 25; it then travels to the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where it will run from February 20 to May 17.) Well, maybe anybody could have made these pictures--anybody, as long as he was born in 1939; raised in Mississippi (in the town where Emmett Till was later lynched) as the asthmatic scion of a wealthy old planter family; developed an early affinity for art and music, and for the gear associated with it (cameras, audio equipment); passed through Ole Miss and various other Southern universities without bothering to take a degree; discovered Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment at just the decisive moment when he was still young enough for the book to have the deepest and most unprepared impact yet mature enough to be able to start reacting constructively to it; set up house in Memphis (where he was born); and developed his art in relative isolation yet remained savvy enough to know that when the work was ready, the only thing to do was to take a suitcase full of prints to New York to lay before MoMA's legendary photography curator John Szarkowski. Anybody could have made them, that is, who was William Eggleston.
Eggleston not only makes it look easy, as natural as opening your eyes, but seems to have come upon his art all at once. That's not to say he never made any apprentice work, only that it had almost nothing in it of what we'd now recognize as the Eggleston eye, and that while there was a transitional period between apprenticeship and fully achieved mastery, it happened in the blink of an eye. "When we met, over forty years ago," writes music journalist Stanley Booth in the Whitney's exhibition catalog, "Eggleston...was already, in his early twenties, reputed to be a 'serious' photographer." Maybe that was the problem: Eggleston's black-and-white photographs of the '60s don't wear their seriousness lightly enough. Some of them are closer to a documentary style than his later pictures were. In others one does see him reaching out for the more oblique, more mercurial sense of what a picture can be, of densely encapsulating lived experience, that would soon be his. His gaze is drawn to the same kinds of places and people one will glimpse in his mature work, but we don't experience them as concretely as in the images he would soon begin making in color. There are intimations of that mature oblique texture in an untitled image taken in 1968 in Memphis: on an eerily empty suburban street, a man stands at the side of the road, one hand bent at an odd angle as if he were pushing off from a nonexistent pole that he'd been holding on to the night before--the gesture points against the direction in which he appears to be fitfully moving. He casts a long shadow on the lawn behind him--as the photographer does across the road that separates them. It's as if the cold morning light of de Chirico's "metaphysical" piazzas had been translated to the New South.
One sees in Eggleston's early color photographs, from around 1969 on, several such scenes of isolated individuals in wide, inhospitable landscapes--the yawning sense of existential disconnection built on an elementary tension between the figure's verticality and the picture's horizontality. Speaking of his childhood, Eggleston recently said, "I never had the feeling that I didn't fit in. But probably I didn't." That's the kind of person these images seem to be about: someone who is detached from his or her environment without realizing it. Szarkowski wrote in his introduction to William Eggleston's Guide, the book that accompanied the exhibition he curated at MoMA in 1976, "The pictures reproduced here are about the photographer's home, about his place, in both important meanings of that word. One might say about his identity." Eggleston has always denied being a "Southern artist" and rightly points out that he travels widely and has made many fine images elsewhere. His is certainly not the "Gothic" South of Faulkner and McCullers, whose photographic offspring might be Ralph Eugene Meatyard. But he's as Southern in his rejection of identification with the South as he is in his evident fascination with its landscape and the people who have made and marred it: they are all here, black and white, rich and poor, not as exemplars of any societal or political problem but all affected by a similar unease with their place. Eggleston once said that the compositional basis for his pictures is the Confederate flag. It's a shocking statement, or it would be if it wasn't more likely that he was making a joke at Szarkowski's expense, the latter having relayed to him MoMA director Alfred Barr Jr.'s observation that Eggleston's images typically "radiate from a central, circular core." But it encapsulates, in any case, the tension between Eggleston's evident formalism and the intense if inexplicit psychosocial unease his imagery embodies.
Eggleston is the opposite of a documentarian because he uproots his images from their anecdotal context. What is left after this removal? A structure of feeling. A good example of this is in a picture called Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background, circa 1970. In terms of color, it's one of the most restrained photographs Eggleston has ever made: pure russet autumn. The ground, here in Eggleston's hometown, is covered with dry leaves bedded on their own shadows. Although the camera's viewpoint is downward-looking, so that there is no horizon and therefore the sky is unseen, the day must be overcast; the sallow light seems to be draining right out of the scene. In the background, on the other side of the water, are some houses, but their distance emphasizes the feeling of isolation. In the central foreground stands a middle-aged white man in a black suit, hands in his pockets. There's a grim, somewhat lost look on his face. To the right, just behind him, stands a black man wearing a white jacket and black trousers. His hands are in his pockets too, but his posture is a little more relaxed than that of his white counterpart; and his facial expression is clearer, his thoughts seemingly turned less exclusively inward. To the left is a white car with the driver's-side door open. Through the glare on the windshield one can just make out its driver's head and a hand on the steering wheel. There's no road to be seen, so one might wonder what a car is doing here.
Eggleston has mentioned that this picture was shot at a funeral--which isn't surprising but hardly seems to explain anything. More to the point is how locked into place these people are by the checkerboard alternation of white and black--white car, black suit, white face, black trousers, white jacket, black face--which stands out so forcefully against their gloomy russet surroundings. Eggleston neither turns the scene into abstraction for its own sake nor uses it as the occasion for a sanctimonious comment on race relations--saying that our differences are transcended in the face of death, for instance, or on the contrary that our differences stubbornly maintain themselves even in the face of death, both of which would be jejune. Any clue that this is a cemetery, or any detail that would tend to make the image into a memento mori, is out of the picture anyway. Part of the power of an image like Sumner, Mississippi comes from Eggleston's refusal to editorialize or to simplify. The viewer's attention is forcefully drawn to its formal structure, but there's no leaving it at that; likewise, though we are not invited to moralize about the social condition of the people who inhabit this place, not for a moment are we allowed to stop thinking about it. The image draws these two aspects into a knot that only tightens as we try to wriggle out of it.
Even when Eggleston does seem to be editorializing, he probably isn't. In this sense, knowing something about the man who made the pictures is most valuable for what it tells you about how not to interpret them. Consider a picture from around 1983-86 of a little boy poring over a gun magazine, surrounded by a beatific light that comes near to forming a halo around his head. The irony of this angelic child being corrupted by America's gun culture is patent--until one sees the title, Winston, and realizes that this is the photographer's son; in which case the magazine could well be Eggleston's too, and so one's reflexive sense of irony has to evaporate, leaving one with an image that is far more disquieting than it would otherwise have been.
Bearing in mind Szarkowski's perception of the importance of place in Eggleston's work, it's probably natural to think of him as essentially a photographer of landscapes and interiors, for whom the human figure is secondary. And he does not discourage this notion. "Generally, to me, people, human beings, are not terrifically interesting to look at in photographs," Eggleston once told me. "It's what they do that's more interesting." But that statement is partly belied by what's on view at the Whitney. Many of his strongest images, especially early on, are of people, and what's interesting is how they're not doing anything. Arguably, it's through this approach that he swerves away from his great precursor, Cartier-Bresson. For the Frenchman, shooting pictures at an oblique angle to the depicted scene was a way of creating strong diagonals that give his images their dynamism, and this compositional dynamism expresses what the people in the picture are doing. Eggleston's diagonals--the crossed bars of his imaginary Confederate banner--tend to fix his people in place, evoking an enormous and vibrant space but one in which they seem at little or no liberty to move around. They are pinned down by history, geography, class, race, circumstance--and we can see their discomfort about that.
After the mid-1970s, people start to become scarcer in Eggleston's images. Everything else that speaks of their presence and their passing becomes Eggleston's focus--their houses, fields, cars, roads, stores, coffee shops. What brought on this change? It's curious that at the end of the '60s and in the early '70s, when Eggleston took many of his most famous images, he did not yet know how to realize them. The prints he derived from color negative film dissatisfied him, lacking color density and nuance. In color slide film he discovered a saturation he thought he could work with, but he couldn't print the results. In 1974 he began using the dye-transfer printing process, typically used only for high-end commercial work, which allowed him to exercise an extraordinary degree of control over color. "By the time you get into all those dyes," Eggleston has said, "it doesn't look at all like the scene, which in some cases is what you want." It might be said that all the color pictures made by Eggleston until 1974 were made, unknowingly, for a process he didn't yet know he could use--like an eighteenth-century composer writing for the harpsichord music that might have been better realized on the piano. But having discovered the process and used it to find the hidden depths in his existing imagery, he let the medium direct him to change his focus; from the mid-'70s on, Eggleston exhibits a new absorption in the surfaces of things. A kind of Pop sensibility enters his work, for instance in the visual glut of hyped-up acidic color in an untitled still life, circa 1983-86, of an outdoor lunch setting with a roast chicken, corn on the cob and all the trimmings set out on a checkered tablecloth. Finally, in many of his images from the past decade, it is neither person nor place nor thing but rather the effigy of a human presence that fascinates him--an eerily synthetic-looking statue of the Virgin Mary, for instance, in Untitled (Orange County), circa 1999-2001, or the TV image of a man as reflected by night in what is presumably a hotel window in Untitled (Kyoto), 2001. Eggleston's work of the past three decades is as good as that of anyone alive, with the sole exception of the man who made the breakthrough work of the late 1960s to the mid-'70s that has seared itself into the mind of anyone who's ever seen Eggleston's Guide.
And that includes the images without people. Just try forgetting Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973--which everyone calls "The Red Ceiling." There hasn't been a surface that red in art since Matisse's The Red Studio, but if anything, the Eggleston is even redder. (Eggleston disproves Matisse's idea that "the quantity of color was its quality"--that to increase the surface area covered by a given color is to increase its intensity; the peculiar sense of concentration and density conveyed by Eggleston's red could not have been extended to the scale of Matisse's painting, or of the similarly scaled photographs that some photographers have been producing in recent years.) This is another Confederate flag composition, yet at the center is not a person but a bare light bulb hanging from a garishly painted ceiling; all the more piercing in its misery. This is a transfixing, beautiful picture of a hideous place. Who could exist in such a room? A clue is supplied by the top of a poster that can be glimpsed at the bottom right corner: it seems to show a correlation between astrological signs and certain sexual positions. So this might be a brothel. Someone might have spent many a dreary working hour staring at that ceiling, and maybe no one else ever gave it a glance until this photographer showed up. As usual with Eggleston, the fact, or possible fact, remains unembroidered with commentary. As with all his best pictures, this one puts the viewer in the middle of a life one might never have chosen for oneself, which could remind us that the person whose life it is might not have chosen it either.