Cultural Observer, Joseph Nolan, Reviews New Book of Contemporary Photography and Essays

Joe Nolan
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W. Eggleston, Shotguns- Lucia Burch, early 1980s

 William Eggleston’s photographs document that space where the banal gives way to the beautiful; the ordinary to the extraordinary. For Now offers unique images from a unique artist and it marks yet another pairing of two creative minds who have similar blind spots for those borders that supposedly exist between high art and low. 

 For Now is the culmination of film-maker Michael Almereyda’s year-long excavation of Eggleston’s archives. Uncovering private treasures spanning four decades, like an archaeologist, Almereyda has uncovered a new view of the man who defined the artistic possibilities of color photography. fine arts magazine
 
While Almereyda may not be a household name, his filmography includes his fantastic translation of The Bard into post-Internet culture with his excellent adaptation Hamlet (2000). Almereyda has also shot documentaries focused on luminaries like playwright Sam Shepard, as well as Eggleston. William Eggleston, In the Real World (2005) makes connections between Eggleston the photographer and Eggleston the man, documenting the artist’s parallel passions for music, draftsmanship and videography. Almereyda has also contributed to past volumes on the photographer.

Dylan Poster- T.C. Boring, Greenwood, Mississippi, early 1970s

Eggleston is most widely known for images of iconic objects and spaces like his tricycles and ceilings. In the Eggleston monograph, The Democratic Forest, author Eudora Welty offered up this pantheon of possible subjects that might find themselves within Eggleston’s frames: “old tyres, Dr Pepper machines, discarded air-conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles and power wires, street barricades, one-way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees crowding the same curb.” 

With, For Now, Almereyda clearly had something different in mind. He’s populated the book with photos of people; some candid, some posed, but all participating in the frisson that results when Eggleston’s creative instincts crash into the individual presence of each woman, old friend, child or bystander that he takes as his subject. While this is not the first glimpse of Eggleston’s people-pictures, these unique, career-spanning selections add up to a nice surprise. Viewers who’ve seen Eggleston’s pioneering video, Stranded in Canton, know that the artist has a knack for capturing the spirit of his subjects in moving images too, and it’s not incorrect to think of For Now as a dialog between two filmmakers. 

Fireworks- Winston Eggleston, Oxford, Mississippi, early 1980s

Perusing the images in the catalog, one never senses that Eggleston is asking questions or even making specific statements. His subjects speak for themselves in declaratives as elemental as drunken tears or spontaneous eruptions of laughter, and the people in For Now have plenty to say. 

Flipping through the book’s 144 pages, a boy’s beaming smile is partly obscured by a gluttonous pile of 4th of July fireworks on a kitchen table. Gleaming wrenches, sockets and other tools in red packaging frame the doorway of an auto supply store; the dark room beyond transformed into sacred space by the ritualized symmetry of the display. A candid snapshot of a friend on the phone is contrasted with the shirtless portrait of a young, blond boy posed beneath a window sill. Various women smile and scowl and cuddle and cry throughout the book. 

Shirtless Boy- William Eggleston III, Oxford, Mississippi, early 1970s

 Many of Eggleston’s photos are taken in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee and in other locales in the South. Because of this cultural pedigree, commentators often compare Eggleston’s images to the writing of William Faulkner. However, one of the hallmarks of Almereyda’s insightful examination of the photographer and his archive is the suggestion that Eggleston’s work is better compared to that of New York School poet, Frank O’hara. Almereyda says, “If you want a true literary parallel for what Eggleston does, look to O’Hara. Eggleston’s pictures feel similarly tossed off and prismatic; hard edged fragments refracting a world of inner and outer experience.” 

O’Hara’s poetry also seems to parallel the spontaneous, impromptu ‘feel’ of Eggleston’s photographs in the reflections of Helen Hennessy Vendler, on the work of the poet in her, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980), when she analogizes the snapshot nature of O’Hara’s verses: “…the offhand remark, the fleeting notation of a landscape, the Christmas or birthday verse, the impromptu souvenir of a party—these are his common forms, as though he roamed through life snapping Polaroid pictures, pulling them out of his camera and throwing them in a desk drawer sixty seconds later.” One can easily imagine an iconic Eggleston image of an ordinary figure, caught on film in an unguarded moment, in the words of O’Hara, “Have you forgotten what we were like then / when we were still first rate / and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth” (Animals, 1960). 

'For Now', book jacket: Girl sleeping in bed- Rosa Eggleston, Memphis, TN, 1971

Almereyda’s deft choices and comments imbue For Now with a fresh perspective on Eggleston and his career, while simultaneously illuminating the central, poetic alchemy at play in the photographer’s work. Eggleston rarely finds anything new to show us through his lens. Instead, the power of his work lies in his ability to transmute the inconsequential into the iconic. In addition to Almereyda’s text, the catalog includes essays and examinations by Lloyd Fonvielle, Greil Marcus, Kristine McKenna and Amy Taubin. 

By Joseph E. Nolan, Contributing Writer 

Joe Nolan is a poet, musician, inter-media artist and writer living in Nashville, TN. His cultural reporting is heard on WPLN, Nashville Public Radio and he publishes a monthly arts column in the alternative weekly, Nashville Scene. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com 

Purchase this (book jacket, left) and other books on photography and the arts by Twin Palms Publishers (2010), 144 pages. Available at www.twinpalms.com

One Comment

  1. john harte July 5, 2011 4:32 am

    can anyone provde the back story to lucia burch photograph,by william eggleston,i knew lucia as a teenager in memphis,i believe she was mr eggleston ,s lover ,until she died in the 1980s.very intriguing photo.

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