william-eggleston
Untitled, 1970 (self-portrait), William Eggleston

Perhaps the best moment of Michael Almereyda’s film William Eggleston in the Real World comes at the very end, between the credits, when we see Eggleston the morning after a hard night (and they pretty much all seem to be hard nights for Eggleston), sitting with his lady friend Leigh Haizlip, as they listen to the haunting Roy Orbison song that gives the film its title.[i] She suddenly remarks how lucky they are to be alive at a time when they can, among other things, enjoy Roy Orbison, rather than in, say, the Middle Ages, when presumably such amenities wouldn’t be available. And, the viewer might well add, when we wouldn’t have been able to experience the photography of William Eggleston either. It’s a strange and rather touching interlude in what is an otherwise somewhat uneven film, but one that in many ways exemplifies the difficulties that exist in approaching Eggleston and his work. Not least of these is the magnetic pull of a near-mythic persona, which creates a real, though perhaps not inevitable tension between critical appraisal and mere biographical reminiscence. This too often shades off into a kind hagiography that clouds our understanding of his achievements. What I want to address here are some of the predominant ways that we tend to think Eggleston as an artist and to consider why these depictions operate in the way that they do.

In fact, Almereyda starts out quite well, trailing Eggleston as he wanders around a small town variously looking at things and taking pictures, wrapped in a large parka. The footage is wobbly and even a little amateurish, as Almereyda warbles on over the top of it, but the effect is oddly mesmerising and it’s clear that the director has a genuine fascination with his subject, as well as no little affection. I might be in the minority on this, but if the rest of the film had continued in the same vein, following the largely monosyllabic Eggleston around, accompanied by his patient son Winston, as he made pictures and charmed the occasional waitress, I would have happily watched it. However, Almereyda probably assumed, no doubt rightly, that this wouldn’t make for much of a documentary, and so he felt obliged to try and ‘reveal’ something about his subject, though what that might be seems very much unresolved by the end of the film. In common with almost every other account of Eggleston, what chiefly emerges is a portrait of a difficult, if remarkable individual who has, almost as an afterthought, and despite being a serious alcoholic living what is invariably described as a ‘turbulent’ personal life, created one of the most substantial bodies of work in modern American photography. And an ‘afterthought’ is precisely how this achievement is most often treated, a mere footnote to his status a minor character of the Sothern Gothic.

To be fair to Almereyda, he doesn’t go nearly so far in this respect as a recent profile of Eggleston for the New York Times in which we learn more about his drinking – and that of the author – than we do his photography.[ii] Worse still is how what is perceived here as Eggleston’s persona (though I don’t mean to suggest he’s acting) is treated as being somehow the very wellspring of his photography, that the ‘charm’ of one, as the last bathetic gasp of a vanished culture, is interchangeable with the value of his efforts as an artist, positioned as just another of those things that kept this scion of the plantation aristocracy occupied, along with having a (supposedly) open marriage, frequenting dive bars and a fondness for Savile Row suits. The subheading of this particular article claims that he is “every bit as brilliant, confounding and heartbreakingly soulful as the pictures he makes.” Of course, writing for a general audience, as in this case, is never going to foreground the issue of photography itself in a way that we would naturally expect from a more specialised setting, but the trend at work is unmistakable and no less pernicious for the willingness to play up the expectation of a particular narrative that wants to show the ‘artist’ as an anachronistic throwback, a rebel thumbing their nose at polite society and following their own rules, whatever the cost, something that Almereyda, much to his credit, doesn’t shy away from either, even if it’s only in showing how the long-suffering Winston tries to cajole the old man into wearing a jacket as they venture out into the Memphis night.

Eggleston himself has not, on the whole, made the appraisal of his work any easier, giving little idea as to why he made the pictures he did, except for the occasional gnomic reference, such as his ‘war with the obvious’ that is by now endlessly and quite pointlessly repeated. His obsession with making and viewing images (his own, naturally) is nonetheless made plain by Almereyda, who not only shows him taking pictures, but also touring an exhibition of his work at the Getty Museum and looking with real, evident pleasure at the pictures, playing with various cameras, leafing through stacks of photographs while declaring that he’s making the best work he ever has – you always think that, Haizlip sardonically tells him. But any purposeful discussion of exactly why he’s making the pictures, what his overall aim might be, is deliberately side-lined by Eggleston himself. Perhaps somewhat frustrated by this, Almereyda attempts to draw him out on the subject, firing questions at him while they sit in a diner, but Eggleston bats away every possibility with the air of a man long accustomed to winning such tedious engagements, saying merely he’s never thought of it that way, whatever it is – and, quite consciously I think, not saying what way he has thought of it, an omission I want to return to later.

In many ways this refusal to engage makes the dominant ‘biographical’ interpretations of his work seem almost inevitable, but as I have already suggested these interpretations also hinge on particular ideas we might have about artists in the culture at large, especially a romantic conception of the nonconformist perusing their own relentless vision against the odds, a narrative aided in Eggleston’s case by the supposed conviction of the art photography establishment that colour was not suitable for serious work until he singlehandedly broke down those barriers, and by the largely uncomprehending notices of his early critics. This is all grist for the Eggleston myth mill. The fact that it doesn’t entirely ring true, not least because his first big exhibition was in New York’s MoMA and that he had the support of major institutions right from the start, hardly matters. At a time when artists are schooled in professional practice, expected to master a polished discursive style and charged thousands (or in America, tens of thousands) a year for the privilege, this perception of Eggleston as a rebel outsider, an authentic Artist following his Muse regardless of fashion or the prevailing tastes of museum curators – as, in short, a kind of faux-primitive – has an undeniable attraction. It’s certainly hard to imagine Eggleston undertaking an MFA programme in photography, though no doubt he has inspired any number of people to do just that.

Similarly, there is little enough scope for understanding Eggleston’s long artistic effort within the framework of academic photographic criticism. Even how it is parsed in the context of press releases and museum texts is a further elaboration of this Great Man theory of his work. No one can really doubt the achievement, if only because of his ascension to the rank of blue-chip gallery artist, but it remains frustratingly difficult to say exactly what that achievement is, without falling back on the mythology that has accrued around it and the persona that his audience has come to expect (though again, it is perhaps not one he has knowingly adopted). The expectation in ‘successful’ art photography now most often seems to be for a clearly defined purpose to be resolved as a closed body of work, a project, accompanied by a statement that becomes the prism through which the work can be seen and understood. This goal-oriented mode of photographic practice is the result of its contemporary institutions, especially in education, that favour such well-defined outcomes and legible intent. Indeed, it often seems if the pictures themselves are secondary to the artist’s ability to elaborate on them. This, in itself, is not entirely without merit, but it’s hard to see how Eggleston’s fundamentally open-ended work could be well accommodated within such a schema.

This is not to say that there isn’t good writing on Eggleston in circulation or that there hasn’t been good writing on him in the past, just that we currently don’t have a very useful way of thinking about Eggleston’s work that doesn’t depend in some measure on a biographical interpretation.[iii] Faced with the often quite mysterious blankness of his images it’s difficult not to fall back on the kind of familiar narratives that might help us navigate it. Even being aware of the pitfalls doesn’t make it easy to avoid them; I certainly haven’t managed to do so here, and maybe have even played them up a little for effect. But for all its apparent centrality to it, there also remains some core of Eggleston’s work that resists integration into the smooth routines of contemporary photographic discourse with its flattening calculus of aims and outcomes. This seems to me something we should value and cultivate, even in those instances where Eggleston’s approach doesn’t appear equal to the challenges of our present moment. The crucial point, though, is that the value of the photography as such doesn’t depend on any assumption we might have about the person who made it or any quality we might assign to their character. Instead, it resides solely in his engagement with photography as a means of encountering the world around him and of communicating that experience to the viewer.

Returning, then, to the scene of Almereyda’s interrogation in the diner, Eggleston evasively answering he hadn’t thought of it (meaning his photography) in that way, could be either taken as he hadn’t thought about it at all, which seems unlikely, or that he had thought it in some way other than what Almereyda is suggesting. A clue to what that might be comes from John Swarkowski’s introduction to the book William Eggleston’s Guide, a collection on which the two collaborated closely. What Swarkowski noted and brilliantly describes here is the fact that for Eggleston colour is not just another element in the picture, existing on the surface of a structure that has already been established, but the fundamental quality he uses to organise its visual space. Colour is the matrix from which the pictures emerge, and though he probably didn’t consciously decide to work in this manner, there is no doubt that he understood precisely what he was doing, had to, in order for his photographs to be “lifted from the visceral world with such tact and cunning” as Swarkowski puts it.[iv] Eggleston’s body of work is, in that sense, the product of a unique visual intelligence, an infinitely flexible programme for seeing photographically in which any subject whatsoever can be made into a meaningful picture – that is the real significance of Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ camera.

The resulting images are not desiccated exercises in formalism, but living slices of the present. And yet, even Swarkowski doesn’t dispute the fact that they are still a fundamentally subjective record of one man’s visual experience, indeed he considers this as being among their chief virtues: “visual analogues for the quality of one life, collectively a paradigm of a private view, a view one would have thought ineffable, described here with clarity, fullness and elegance.”[v] It seems to me, however, that the difference between this reading and the constraints of a ‘biographical’ interpretation is in the sense that the pictures are, to risk contradiction, almost impersonally subjective, so that the logic of the photographic frame is never subordinated to a description of his experience as anything other than that of an observer, albeit one preternaturally attuned to what he’s seeing, and who doesn’t also need to be a participant. In other words, the pictures come first, and it isn’t important for us to know who the subjects are or where the pictures were made in order to understand them, as pictures. Despite the implication of numerous accounts, written profiles, criticism and documentaries, Eggleston’s visual intelligence is not directly reducible to a narrative of specific places and people, to the facts (or often, assumptions) of his biography, however tempting it might be to think so.

That Eggleston’s major projects and their resulting publications have slanted the consideration of his subjects in different ways is in many respects due to the influence of his collaborators. Swarkowski is clear on the fact the he sees the work in the Guide as being fundamentally about place, while Thomas Weski’s influence on Los Alamos is perhaps less explicitly stated but it might well be seen as forming a study of the wider American social landscape, its relentless multiplication of signs increasingly disordered and difficult to navigate. The point being that while these different threads were perhaps not fully intended by Eggleston, they were nonetheless present in his work, which, although it can’t be readily characterised in terms of a single project, still has something like an overarching trajectory. This is defined by nothing so much as a trenchant engagement with the everyday as an arena for his visual experiments – and, indeed, as a source of visual pleasure. But given that a photograph is always, finally, a photograph of something, and in this case the ‘something’ was the world around him, Eggleston became, not altogether incidentally, the foremost visual anatomist of modern American life. In his best work the line between the formality of the picture and the existence of his subject (as he has seen it) is so blurred as to become all but inextricable.

What we might call the mythologies of William Eggleston, then, the accumulation of rumour and gossip that seems to make up the most widely circulated accounts of his work, appears on the surface at least to be the result of a sincere interest in someone who has always lived on their own terms, whatever that means, but it must also be understood as a reaction to the difficulty that exists in coming to grips with his prodigious output, an achievement that is almost universally admired, but that is uniquely difficult to characterise one way or another, except seemingly in terms of its maker’s status as a kind of savant who is unaware of – or simply unable to say – how and why these intriguing images have come into being. This impression is inadvertently reinforced by the way that contemporary photographic practices tend to be defined in terms of a specific set of aims building toward a single coherent project, something that is largely inimical to Eggleston’s methodology, so that here too some variation on ‘biographical’ criticism is undertaken to provide a framework for its appraisal, where he figures as, among other things, the singular ground-breaking pioneer of colour photography. What seems to be required, ultimately, is not some different way of situating the person who made these images, but a different way of thinking about the medium and its possibilities in light of them. Eggleston’s achievement might well be unrepeatable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it either.

 

[i] William Eggleston in the Real World (2005), Michael Almereyda, director. The conversation in the diner that I refer to later begins with a monologue from Eggleston on the evanescence of dreams in which he makes beautiful photographs, but that he can’t remember for long after waking. A comparison of this subject with the lyrics of Orbison’s song gives the film an unexpected poignancy, not least because of Leigh Haizlip’s death during the period of time that it covers.

[ii] William Eggleston, The Pioneer of Color Photography, by Augusten Burroughs. Photographs and video by Wolfgang Tillmans. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/17/t-magazine/william-eggleston-photographer-interview-augusten-burroughs.html?_r=0. To be clear, Burroughs’ article on Eggleston is very forthright about his status as a photographer, but at the same time suggests that it has as much to do with the man himself as the work he has produced. Those aspects of Eggleston’s story I elaborate above (the supposedly open marriage, the old Sothern money) are admittedly not mentioned, though the Savile Row suits do make an appearance.

[iii] For some exceptions that prove the rule, consider: http://cphmag.com/forest-1/; http://cphmag.com/forest-2/ and https://collectordaily.com/william-eggleston-selections-from-the-democratic-forest-david-zwirner/

[iv] John Swarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976/ 2002, pg. 12. Swarkowski’s introduction is not only one of the finest pieces of writing about Eggleston’s work, but surely counts among the best pieces of critical writing about the medium.

[v] Ibid, pg. 14.

It is no doubt frustrating for an artist when one particular interpretation lodges firmly in the minds of their audience as the best way to approach a given work, a frustration compounded when this work is the artist’s most widely known and influential. Such is the case with Chris Killip’s In Flagrante, which is generally seen as a response to the social changes that occurred in England during – and as a result of – Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister. Killip attempts to correct this perception with what is perhaps a somewhat tongue-in-cheek gesture in the new and long awaited reprint of the book by renowned publisher Steidl, listing the successive Prime Ministers that held office in the period he was making the work, only the last of which was the notorious Thatcher.[i] This addendum makes clear that, if nothing else, the persistent association of In Flagrante solely with the damaging effects of Thatcherite policy is chronologically wrong and the process of dismantling post-war social reforms that Killip so ably described had actually begun much earlier. In itself this is an important and welcome corrective to entrenched critical attitudes about the work. What the book also brings up, however, and what I want to address here is the issue of those changes a photographer might make between various editions of a book and the extent to which these are warranted or worthwhile.

The comparatively high price of the original means it is difficult to make a complete comparison; even the Errata Editions title on In Flagrante is now expensive to obtain. In fact, it might be more interesting to consider the rationale for making any changes at all, to what is, for many, an acknowledged masterpiece. The changes that have taken place are alluded to in the title, which is now appended by the word Two, differentiating this edition of the book and defining its successor status – a not quite sequel. Killip has taken the opportunity to include three images that had been left out of the first version. He doesn’t give any indication why they were excluded in the first place, as Stephen Shore, for example, does in the ‘Artist’s Note’ that introduces the 2014 reprint of his own seminal Uncommon Places, explaining that several of the images were absent from the original printing of the book because they required the intervention of digital technology to be useable. Advances in reproduction are in fact an excellent reason for a new edition of a book, especially in the case of colour printing. More significantly, Shore expanded on the original 1982 edition in 2004, so as to give a more representative view of his concerns in making that work, something he felt was not communicated by the original publication. Twenty further images have been added to the 2014 edition. The book is consequentially billed as the ‘complete’ work, though in many ways it seems doubtful that those pictures will substantially change our understanding of Shore’s essential aims.

The inclusion of three images by Killip is the least of the changes that have taken place, although they are powerful photographs in their own right. What he has left out is perhaps just as significant, including his own brief, somewhat enigmatic introduction, along with the closing texts­­ by John Berger and Sylvia Grant. The most striking change is a simple, formal one; he has moved the images uniformly to the right-hand page, where each image appears by itself, in that classic format for the photobook. The book itself is also bigger, so that we can now lose ourselves in the rich, often painful details of each picture, such as the iconic image Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside (1978), where each crease of the man’s worn hands, the unravelling hem of his overcoat sleeve, its crudely darned pocket, his precarious balance on the wall, all have the force of a revelation. But this change in placement and rhythm means that each image also becomes, in effect, an object of aesthetic contemplation in a way that tends to dull the sheer urgency of the original narrative – an urgency that is once again, sadly, as pressing as ever. Whatever else the movement of images across the page in the original might have done, it reinforced the sense that these images are part of a dynamic whole, one that sat, as Killip himself said at the time, somewhere between fiction and metaphor. So there is a certain ambivalence in the experience of looking at the reissue; however much one might enjoy the complexity of individual pictures, this now comes at the expense of the book’s overall narrative complexity.

The sequence is now basically framed by two images, one of which does not feature in the original. They are two views of the same place, Wallsend, Tyneside, with a row of terraced houses on the left of the frame. In the second, newly included, and presumably later image, it appears as if a war has taken place – and, of course, in a sense, it has. The houses are abandoned, some apparently burned out, debris is strewn everywhere. A lone figure surveys the wreckage. There’s no indication as to what has actually taken place, but the implications are clear; a devastating break has occurred, a whole world, with its values and traditions, has been lost – or rather, has been wilfully thrown away. The effect of how these images are placed creates a sort of closure, by progressing from that world as it was to how it ended. What should be clear is that the new edition of the book works, as a book, in a substantially different way from the original; we might also note that the impression that it leaves, as a net result of this change, is substantially different was well. Still angry, it is now decidedly, if subtly elegiac, as though suggesting the damage has already been done. Leaving out Killip’s own short introduction and the concluding essay(s) has an effect as well. Berger’s text probably went a long way toward associating the work with a critique of Thatcherite policies, so it makes sense to cut it, given Killip’s desire to broaden the scope of responses the project has garnered. But this absence also serves to strengthen the impression that the pictures are the product of a history that has now largely been resolved.

It could be said, of course, that there is a difference between a facsimile edition and a reissue, which merely presents the work in as close a form to the original as the artist currently sees fit, affording the scope to correct issues with the original, such as Killip clearly felt was needed with both the printing, which was significantly darker the first time around, perhaps due to limitations in technology, and, as I have just outlined, the placement of the images. At the same time, how justifiable is it to apply such significant changes to a landmark work when the original books are so inaccessible to begin with? Its might be argued that this expanded format is a real advantage to our understanding of the work, which perhaps it is. But the fact that such major works in photographic book-making are not more widely available in some alternative form is increasingly hard to excuse. This need not involve the production of costly printed facsimiles, but could easily make use of high-resolution imaging and be distributed digitally instead. Although they don’t make ‘facsimiles’ as such, the aforementioned Errata Editions is an important model for what might be possible in this vein. Of course, a screen-based reproduction is not at all the same as seeing the original, but it would still provide a clear sense of sequencing and other important details, which are at least as important as the book’s materiality.

Given that most publishers are in the business of making products that will reliably sell, rather than promoting niche scholarship, this seems unlikely to happen on any kind of large scale, but it remains a worthwhile possibility to consider, especially since so many of the important books in photography are beyond the reach of most interested buyers and those studying the medium. Of course, no artist wants to be forever beholden to their past work, but the continuing inaccessibility of many important works in their original form is a serious impediment to the critical understanding of photography – and even of simple enjoyment, with publishers (and institutions) unwilling to make full use of the tools that are now available to them, especially since the promise of an ‘updated’ and ‘all new’ edition of a classic seems more likely to offer a better return on the steep investment of producing a photobook, whatever its reputation. The opposite extreme is the production of elaborate, ostensibly ‘complete’ works especially aimed at collectors. A good example of this trend in recent years has been the reissue of William Eggleston’s books in full, often consisting of multi-volume sets, including most or all of the material that was left out of the original publications.

While there’s certainly a case to be made that the best way to understand Eggleston is, simply, more Eggleston, and that the printing of these sets is also orders of magnitude better than the originals, especially true in the case of The Democratic Forest, the importance of letting the audience see (a version of) the original books for themselves and to understand the decisions – indeed, the compromises – that went into making them, should not be underestimated. If The Democratic Forest doesn’t seem to be terribly inaccessible or expensive on the used market right now, the same can’t really be said of Los Alamos, published by the sadly defunct Scalo. This is one of Eggleston’s essential works, crucial to understanding the themes and preoccupations that would define his output. The Los Alamos Revisited box-set from Steidl makes all those images available, plus a great many more and, in a way, the justification for the scope of these sets is that they reveal Eggleston’s vision in full, away from the pruning hands of his various editors.[ii] Not quite Eggleston unfiltered, but nearly. And the sumptuous production makes the purchase of these sets seem like a worthwhile investment. But understanding the work means taking account of all of the forces that have shaped it, even those that might retrospectively come to seem like ‘mistakes’ to the artists themselves, much as with Killip’s decision to change to layout of In Flagrante.

Josef Koudelka’s Exiles also provides a useful case study for the problems that can be encountered in the course of reissuing a book. Counting the most recent edition, which appeared in 2015, there are now three versions of the book in circulation, each slightly but meaningfully different from the others.[iii] The latest version shares the cover image with the second, but differs in typography and layout, while the first edition is more markedly different still. The recent edition is not being presented in any specific way, except as a standard reprint, so it seems like we should safely be able to assume that the work is structured in the same way as the earlier editions. But the first clue that this is not so must be the fact that several ‘new’ images have been included for the first time – standard practice, as we have seen, with the reprinting of classic photobooks. The changes that have been implemented here are more substantial than the inclusion of these new images would suggest by itself, however. What they involve is a restructuring of the book’s sequence, presumably to better accommodate the new pictures, but also because the occasion of this reprinting offers the opportunity for Koudelka to make a final ‘definitive’ version of the book and one that, not coincidentally, makes use of the heavier tonality that he prefers for his more recent work.

To be clear, this isn’t about preserving the book as a static record of the artist’s vision at a particular moment closest to its creation, but about understanding that the artwork (a book, in this case) is the product of those decisions that make it up and being able to read the worth of those decisions critically, because retrospectively altering them must inevitably change the work – and not always for the better. With books especially the sequencing of the pictures and the alchemy of what happens between them is central to the form, so to change that, either for the sake of making the book into an ostensibly new product or because the artist’s sense of what the work should be has altered in the meantime is essentially to re-make the work on its most basic level. Obviously there are arguments in favour of either position, but the scope and the effect of such changes have to be understood for what they are. With the case of Koudelka’s Exiles it seems to me that viewers coming to the work for the first time, not having seen the earlier versions, will be getting an impression of the work that is substantially less complete than it should – or could – be. [iv]  The rationale for a straightforward facsimile edition of the original book seems clear, given the status of the work, but the opportunity wasn’t availed of – without, I would argue, any solid reason why such a project hasn’t been undertaken.

Even the varied and somewhat inconsistent terminology being used here – facsimile, reissue and so on – reflects the confused state of the market, a situation that seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.[v] It’s clear as well that no single approach will be workable in every case. As a tentative conclusion, however, we might say that the reluctance to embrace the full range of tools now available to facilitate scholarship in this crucial area of the medium is increasingly unjustifiable, not because digital editions can in any sense replace printed books, but because they can potentially provide a useful insight into the history of a particular book or artist when physical copies of the work are prohibitively expensive to acquire or just not available. Put simply, they are a further means of appreciation. It also needs to be recognised that there is a place for proper facsimile editions of books, even in those instances where ‘complete’ or alternate versions of the work exists, as in the case of Eggleston, or where the original work no longer conforms to the photographer’s current vision, such as can be seen with Chris Killip and Josef Koudelka in the examples cited above. This is certainly not to disregard the wishes or the intentions of the artists in question, but is a demand that arises from the sincere desire to deepen our understanding of how their work has progressed, with all of its complexities intact.

[i] He is also conscientious enough to include the political affiliation of these successive PMs. He neglects to provide a date for almost all of the pictures, however, and to my mind this is a serious omission, although admittedly that information is not given in the original either.

[ii] These include Thomas Weski for Los Alamos, Mark Holborn for The Democratic Forest and John Swarkowski for William Eggleston’s Guide, which reassuringly remains available as a very nice – and quite affordable – facsimile edition. Strictly speaking the Eggleston box-sets are not ‘reissues’ at all, but they do still have significant bearing on the discussion.

[iii] To confuse matters further, the three versions of the book that I refer to above include only the English editions. The very first is the French edition published by Robert Delpire. This also presents a different selection and sequence of images compared to the first English edition published by Thames & Hudson.

[iv] My own admittedly subjective view is that these changes largely undermine the subtle narrative poetry that made the original (English) edition so special.

[v] For the sake of clarity, however, let’s say that a facsimile edition reproduces the book in a way that is as near as possible to its original form and that a reprint is generally much the same, while a reissue may be all of these, but also leaves scope to change the existing presentation of the work entirely.