WILLIAM EGGLESTON: NOT COLOR'S DAD

Make the rounds of the Armory show in NYC this weekend and you'll see hundreds of color photographs, or "c-prints." The art world loves color photography--it's becoming almost as ubiquitous as painting and sculpture--and it might surprise you to learn that it's all because of one man, an eccentric Southern photographer named William Eggleston.

At least that's what critic Jim Lewis argues, in a recent profile in the online magazine Slate. Lewis claims that Eggleston's “breakthrough,” all-color show at MOMA in 1976 was an "annunciation of the coming of color," paving the way for ready acceptance of chromatics in “new art photographers” such as Nan Goldin, Mitch Epstein, Richard Prince, and Andreas Gursky. Without a trace of irony (I'm pretty sure), he dubs Eggleston "The Father of Color Photography."

This pronouncement is just irritating, for a couple of reasons. First, it overlooks major developments around the time of Eggleston's show that were also bringing color to the fore, in favor of the tired "great men" view of history. Second, the four successors mentioned are completely unrelated to one another conceptually; the pictures Lewis chooses to illustrate his argument show surface similarities but ultimately do a disservice to the meanings of the artists.

Of course, Lewis immediately hedges by saying that “ready acceptance” means only acceptance of color and not acceptance of the four artists’ work itself. Nevertheless, it's hard not to keep them in mind, because they're the only concrete examples he gives of why the photo world's expansion to color might be important (other than generally explaining that the move was long overdue). By emphasizing the “vernacular” side of Eggleston's work, Lewis seems to be building a connection to, in particular, Epstein (for the sometime banality of his subject matter) and Goldin (for the snapshot casualness of her style). But apart from considering the good or bad taste of color snapshots, he doesn't really tell us how artists are using the full spectrum in the wake of Eggleston.

Art after Art Photography.

Lewis’ phrase "new art photographers" glosses over a not-so-old schism in the world of Museum-collected photography, between “art photography“ and what might roughly be called “artists with cameras,” a distinction outlined in Abigail Solomon-Godeau‘s famous essay “Photography after Art Photography.“ Almost exclusively shot in black and white and practiced by the likes of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander, art photography was firmly ensconced in the museum in the ‘60s and ‘70s under the stewardship of MOMA curator John Szarkowski; it emphasized darkroom practice and objective standards of quality in photos.

The "conceptual photography" of Prince, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and others, however, emerged from the world of painting, sculpture, and video. These artists used photos to document a performance, advance a theory, or critique the mass media, and didn't much give a damn about photographic values (including the old prohibition on color). In addition to this generation change in America, developments in European contemporary art gradually came to light in the late ‘70s: Gilbert & George, for example, used vivid colors in their photopastiches at least as early as 1975, and the conceptualist Jan Dibbets had no qualms about color in his images of tilted landscapes and car hoods. And finally, as Lewis mentions, color printing technology was vastly improving during this period.

Thus, while Szarkowski may have taken a big leap vis a vis older art photographers by giving Eggleston a one-person museum exhibit in ‘76, other trends were fast making that radicality a non-issue. The Europeans and young Americans weren’t invited into the tea circle of art photography because William Eggleston opened the door: instead, they found their own critical advocates, and after a few years of publicity and sales, they simply took over the show--and color came along with them.

Everybody's an artist.

Photography now is actually a mishmash of the art and conceptualist camps: the "snapshot aesthetic" of artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Richard Billingham rubs shoulders with anal retentive compositions by Gursky and the ultra-stagy Gregory Crewdson (and the latter's former students). All of the above now just call themselves artists, and the term "art photography" is in disrepute as the domain of camera club perfectionists.

Of the practitioners invoked/not invoked by Lewis as Eggleston successors, only Epstein might be called an old school “art photographer” lineally descended from Eggleston (although he claims Gary Winogrand as a mentor). Gursky’s work springs from the Euro-conceptual tradition of his teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher; Goldin’s ‘80s photography was verite involvement in the lives of a group of boho friends in New York’s East Village (seen as performative, post-Sherman); Prince was an American “appropriator” (see rephotographed cowboys below). While all of them may ultimately have emerged at the end of their careers as photographers Szarkowsi would probably love, that’s not how they started out.

Eggleston certainly had some influence on the current generation as a poetic formalist, but Lewis keeps emphasizing the (apparently) casual, snapshot side of his work--“garish” color, “bad” lighting, “banal” subject matter. I put all these terms in quotes because Eggleston isn’t really that casual. When I think of him the images that pop into my head are his tributes to "found color"--painted stripes on walls, product displays in Southern grocery stores, and that outrageous red ceiling (above)--revealing the exacting eye of a color field painter. David Byrne's curated selection of Eggleston photos for the 1986 True Stories book likewise included only this type of photo and none of the Diane Arbus-like images of odd southern characters.

Regardless of the subject matter, Eggleston's "snapshots" of the rural South are very carefully put together. Hilton Kramer couldn't see that in 1976, but he was famously wrong about many artists. Eggleston's "mistakes," such as the overexposed tree Lewis mentions, or non-sequiturs, such as the boy lying incongruously on a garage floor, occur within pictures that precisely balance chromatics, shape, composition, and so forth. Lewis discusses such formal strategies (turning the "perceived vices" of color into virtues, balancing shallowness and depth, creating "odd spirals") but without identifying them explicitly as such. You get the feeling Lewis mainly has Goldin in mind when discussing Eggleston’s casualness, but that’s inapposite because her early work was genuinely rushed, capturing the heat of the moment.

Eggleston had help.

As for the “great man” thesis: Lewis creates the impression that Eggleston traveled to NY with a box of slides under his arm and the most powerful photography curator there had the perceptiveness to immediately give him a show. According to an Art on Paper article, Eggleston befriended photographers Friedlander, Arbus, and Winogrand in the '60s, all of whom were Szarkowsi's "New York School" proteges. Szarkowski may indeed have been "immediately" impressed by Eggleston's work, but having the support of his circle couldn't have hurt. Also, Washington, DC artist William Christenberry plugged Eggleston to curator Walter Hopps, who wanted to do an Eggleston show but dropped it when he found out about Szarkowski's. In any case, Eggleston made his famous trip to NY in 1967 but it took Szarkowski nine years finally to give him a show.

I would argue that Eggleston truly is an art photographer, in the old Szarkowsian sense, and if he seems contemporary at all now it’s because artists that were once threatening have grown more traditional. This is especially true of Prince, who started his career sardonically rephotographing Marlboro ads, but has been taking some pretty tame pictures of his upstate New York environs lately. Calling Eggleston the Father of Color Photography is annoyingly patriarchal, and ignores what Brian Eno calls "scenius"--a kind of collective innovation that includes changes in technology and the efforts of many lesser-known people working in the field. The story of the brilliant outsider coming to the big city and cutting through all the bullshit is very American, but in this case the photo world's tectonic shifts are the more interesting tale. Maybe Eggleston isn’t as dismissable as Martha Rosler once said he was (she saw his promotion by MOMA as a Kodak-inspired plot to sell home color darkroom equipment), but his conservative brand of difficulty makes him an ideal patron saint for backsliders.

Afterthoughts. It may well be that William Eggleston's "breakthrough" enabled photo departments to collect color photos for the first time, but this is really a minor achievement, important only within the rigid, internecine structure of the contemporary art museum, since color photography *was* being collected a few doors down the hall, in the painting department. Thus, what he really did was give photographers who wanted to use color permission to do something, a handful of years early, that artists were already doing. But to be important, we expect artists to rewrite the rules of the game, not just a few intramural regulations.

If I had to pick a "great man" it would probably be Prince, for finally, belatedly extending the logic of Duchamp and Pop art to photography (and being a malicious wit). The reason breaking the color barrier was important was that at last photography could be as permeable to the everyday (commercial, media-defined) world as painting had become under Warhol. More than a color progenitor, it might be interesting to think of Eggleston as a proto-appropriator, photographing banal commercial subject matter in a landscape setting before Prince et al came along and just removed the setting. But that's a stretch--I still think Eggleston is mainly an art photographer, whose principal contribution is injecting the poetry of color field painting into mechanically produced images.

- tom moody 3-05-2003 3:51 am