William Eggleston. Heard of him? I think you have so I won't waste your time with repeating his story but the thick catalog that accompanies his retrospective at the Whitney Museum is worth spending a bit of time over. At 304 pages, William Eggleston Democratic Camera: Photographs and Video 196-2006 is a substantial contribution to the discussion of this quirky artist much like Figments from the Real World was for Winogrand or Peter Galassi's exercise in the extreme was for Lee Friedlander.
The first thing one notices with Democratic Camera is the dustjacket. Now, choosing an image that will be the face put forward for a life's work can be tricky business to say the least. One might jump to certain obvious mainstream 'hits' from the artist's career. For Eggleston this might be say, the tricycle picture (cover of the 'Guide'), or the woman with the red hair at the concession counter (Hasselblad Award). The red ceiling picture (Foundation Cartier). Obviously you wouldn't choose one of those for this cover too but you get the idea. OR you can pick a lesser known image, you know he has tens of thousands laying around. But what they decided upon would have been my last choice - the dolls lined up on the Cadillac hood. The paper stock has a glossy finish too. For a book on David Byrne? Perfect match. Here, I'm not loving it.
Getting into the body of the book, it starts off decent enough with the ubiquitous Sponor's Statement and Directors' Forword, a preface, and onto the first essay by Thomas Weski which gives an extensive peek into Eggleston's background and practice. Finely written, it serves both newcomers and Eggleston aficionados well and is the most substantial of the essays included.
A second text by Elisabeth Sussman discusses his video work with the Sony-PortaPak and the rarely seen 'Stranded in Canton.' This footage, over 72 hours in total, has been edited into a 76 minute rough cut video from which many stills are reproduced. As a side note, small book from Twin Palms has been published which reproduces many stills as well as includes a DVD of Stranded in Canton.
The 'plates' section starts off with 9 of his early black and white photographs mostly made around shopping centers - 6 of which were unknown to me. These early photos follow in the traditions of Bresson and Winogrand and are fine examples with much merit. I think this set up makes his turn to color seem all the more important in terms of taking a risk as he was mining a good vein in black and white as well.
The selection of plates is a good mix of familiar and not. Although printed by Steidl, some of the reproductions do suffer from slight heaviness and others seem murky. The aforementioned girl with the red hair at the concession stand image has had all of the golden tone of sunlight somehow drained away and the image of the young black children along the roadside is dreadfully reproduced out of focus.
The back of the book features three short essays by Donna De Salvo, Tina Kukielski, and Eggleston's long-time friend Stanley Booth. One that I particularly enjoyed was Donna De Salvo's dedication to discussing one image - the photo of the plastic toy animals from the 14 Pictures portfolio published in 1974. It was this image in particular that made Eggleston a complete mystery to me when I was in school and is an example of how my view of him has swung dramatically. That picture drew an almost irrational response of anger from me when I first saw it. Like my father when visiting the MoMA asked if I thought Picasso was putting us on, I couldn't see any merit to that photograph. Today, it is one that I can't shake and think of often with enjoyment because it so easily confounds by appearing silly or overly simple. Deeper consideration proves otherwise yet the image seems so understated that it doesn't invite such consideration easily.
Of course all of my criticisms are subjective and aimed primarily at the choices of design and material but the overall feel of this book is a turn off. The paper, which I think has been flood varnished (a process of coating the entire page as opposed to spot varnish which just covers the photos) has a very glossy appearance which I don't like. Did I mention I hate the dustjacket?
Is it true that this is the first retrospective of Eggleston in the United States? If so it has been much needed as his influence has spread to many outside of the medium, especially those in filmmaking. He is now the stuff of legend partly due to his persona with its air of Southern aristocracy, ever present libations, and his speech pattern which has the slowness of a spilt molasses/quaalude paste. Unfortunately, those that put together this catalog drained some of this added charm from the project and what is presented seems clinical and plastic - much like the dolls that grace the cover.