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The Shifting Truth about William Eggleston’s Photography

The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston is currently on exhibit at The University of Mississippi Museum. The exhibit has been extended and will run through February 18, 2017. The exhibition is curated by author Megan Abbott and the photographs are a donation to the museum from the private collection of William Ferris—a personal friend of Eggleston. Ferris’s connection to the Southern arts is more than just his friendship with Eggleston. He is among other things, a photographer himself, an author, the founding director of the Center of the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and currently is a Professor of History and Senior Associate Director at the Center for Study of the American South University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ferris like Eggleston, was born in Mississippi. Eggleston like Ferris, has ties to the University of Mississippi having spent a brief stint as an Ole Miss student. In short, the images on exhibit are an assortment of prints given from Eggleston to Ferris over the course of many years—spanning far enough back that included in the exhibit are some of Eggleston’s early black and white photographs. Also included are images from his Election Eve series. These were particularly enjoyable to see and timely given that later this year Steidl will be releasing an updated volume of Eggleston’s 1977 Election Eve artist’s book.

The exhibition edit is looser than an Eggleston photo book, which is saying a lot given that Eggleston’s approach has always been to pretty much photograph everything. Most of the images are not the expected Eggleston fare, which makes sense given that the edit was made from a collection of photographs that, as Ferris shared during a panel discussion that accompanied the exhibition, he would pull from a stack of a few hundred atop Eggleston’s grand piano at his home in Memphis. The exhibit at times feels just as serendipitous as thumbing through a pile of prints and finding ones that resonate but just as personal too—artifacts from a friendship between two artists who just happen to be prominent figures in Southern arts.

During the panel discussion curator Megan Abbott described Eggleston’s photography as coming from the “hot middle” and that the beginning and end are never really explored in an Eggleston photograph. That’s exactly what the edit looks like—no narrative, just feeling, sometimes off kilter (some of the prints are framed with the edge of the photograph hidden behind the edge of the frame on top and bottom but not each side, not weighted evenly in the matte or frame—this mounting decision by the way I found to be the most detrimental to the exhibit). Occasionally the photographs are specific—the construction site of the Super Dome in New Orleans, but usually mysterious—tattered towels on a clothes line—like the experience one might have thumbing through a stack of prints atop a grand piano pulling out the ones you like. Connections are loose as summer is hot in the South. Like cars parked in nighttime lots, there is a lot of empty space open for meandering, looking for truth. Abbott said that it’s not us who understand these photos but the photographs that have always understood us. This personification as rhetorical device might be because of her literary background but it suggests that there is an intrinsic truth—to either we the viewer or the photograph—waiting to be revealed.

About the time of the French Revolution, Romantic poets were upending the idea that truth was out there to be found. Author Richard Rorty wrote that, “The French Revolution had shown that the whole vocabulary of social relations, and the whole spectrum of social institutions, could be replaced almost overnight.” I like to think that the Romantic poets were right. Much the same, in the late 20th century, Eggleston turned the art world on its head seemingly overnight with his color photography. Eggleston bucked the black and white trend in fine art photography of the time and like those Romantic poets a century earlier, showed what happens when “art is thought no longer as imitation but, rather, as the artist’s self-creation.” This self-creation as described by Rorty is a private and autonomous process not to societal norms, but to oneself. This is the space in which we can begin to expand the notion of self as democratically as Eggleston has photographed The South and America beyond for over 40 years. It is a process of private perfectionism forming truths spanning not just what we have seen in Eggleston’s public work since the 1970s by way of exhibition and photo books but also those images that would otherwise remain unseen, left amongst the piano stacks. As the exhibit suggests, if Eggleston’s catalogue is large his backlog of unseen must be larger, the photographs perhaps even, self-aware, waiting and calling.

How much does Eggleston’s photographs inform our memory when we return to the scenes depicted from prior centuries? This is the question I posed to Richard McCabe, Curator of Photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art who was also participated in the panel discussion. At the time I had not formulated the question all that well as it had popped in my head during the discussion and I asked at the tail end of the Q & A (never be the last person to ask a question, especially after a long pause in questions from the audience). I made the mistake of inadvertently framing Eggleston’s photographs as nostalgic, which they are not nor did I intend to suggest they were. I should have been more clear to say that it is not the photographs that are nostalgic but rather, we are perhaps nostalgic in how we view them. If that’s splitting hairs I will just make the statement here that Eggleston’s nor any photograph for that matter is intrinsically anything and therefore cannot be in and of themselves nostalgic. A photograph is in all its mystery, incomplete without our response be it contempt or longing. McCabe’s response to my question was to argue that Eggleston’s work is not nostalgic. I wholeheartedly agree. But I will say that whenever I look upon a photograph, I do so with some nostalgia for beauty and truth that might not have been if it weren’t for the photograph. The photograph as an artistic medium demands it—aesthetic central to its function even in the most boring of scenes. If Eggleston found beauty in the mundane, doesn’t his photographs then make the mundane more beautiful? If they don’t, if they don’t show us something we couldn’t otherwise see, then I don’t think we’d be having as much discussion as we do about Eggleston’s photography or any photography. And if what we saw each time we looked didn’t change then we’d be satisfied with just one look.