William Eggleston: Los Alamos
William Eggleston has imagined that he shoots photographs from the vantage point of an insect, a baby, or a rifle—anything to avoid feeling as if he were doing it with his own eyes or, God forbid, taking a picture that looks like one he might have already taken:
Humans make pictures which tend to be about five feet above the ground looking out horizontally. I like very fast flying insects moving all over and I wonder what their view is from moment to moment. I have made a few pictures which show that physical viewpoint.
In the fall of 1976, shortly before Jimmy Carter was elected president, Eggleston drove to Plains, Georgia, on assignment for Rolling Stone. He had met Andy Warhol and, through him, Warhol’s superstar Viva, with whom he lived for a time at the Chelsea Hotel and who remains a close friend. She was with him when he drove from Mississippi to Plains shooting what became his book Election Eve (1977, recently reissued). According to Mark Holborn, in his 1991 preface to William Eggleston, Ancient and Modern, the most searching and complete analysis of Eggleston’s work, it was on this trip that he stopped using the camera’s viewfinder and began to shoot as if he were firing a shotgun. In Eggleston’s own words:
It makes you much freer, so you can hold the camera up in the air as if you were ten feet tall. You end up looking more intensely as you walk around. When it is time for you to make the photograph, it’s all ready for you. Unlike a rifle, where you carefully aim following a dot or a scope, with a shotgun it’s done with feel. You don’t look down the barrel and line things up. With a fluid movement your body follows a moving target and the gun keeps moving after the shot with what is known as “follow through.” That becomes subconscious. Good shooting instructors will encourage you to follow through. It’s the opposite of the rational method. When I got the prints from this method, they looked like shotgun pictures.
In his photographs Eggleston had already been putting into practice “the idea that one could,” as he said in his ten-volume The Democratic Forest, “treat the Lincoln Memorial and an anonymous street corner with the same amount of care, and that the resulting two pictures would be equal.” Between 1965 and 1974 he and the curator Walter Hopps, once described in The New York Times as “the most gifted museum man on the West Coast…possibly in the nation,” drove together from Memphis, Tennessee, to Santa Monica, California, with Eggleston taking photographs and Hopps at the wheel. Sometimes they were joined by Dennis Hopper. Hopps recalled Eggleston saying, as they drove past the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the once-secret site of the Manhattan Project, “You know, I’d like to have a secret lab like that.” Hence the name of the series “Los Alamos,” which includes over two thousand pictures, from which the seventy-five stunning dye-transfer prints currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were chosen.
“Los Alamos” includes some of Eggleston’s best-known images. En Route to New Orleans (1971–1974) is one of his dreamiest: the rounded edges of an airplane window, a fold-up table with a glass of Coca-Cola or bourbon on ice, a hand lazily poised over the straw in the glass, a view of white clouds in a blue sky, the rough fabric of the back of the seat in the next row. The shadow of the plastic glass and its amber-colored contents are cast on the table, framed by the cartoonish, paw-like shadow of the hand.
The most Egglestonian images are those in which colors collude to make something visually arresting out of very little, such as a Maytag washing machine with a sweater laid out to dry on a towel on top of it (Memphis, 1971–1974.) A red box casts a black shadow on the tiled wall behind it, and the white, red, and black are also in the jacquard pattern of the sweater, whose ribs match the dark lines in the grid of the appliance’s control panel. In California (1971–1974) he captures the improvisation that a milky spill performs on black asphalt, with a slice of a chrome-trimmed mocha-and-cream 1960s Cadillac languorously stretched over a third of the frame.
Cars—car wrecks, too—skies, and the color red have been some of Eggleston’s great subjects, along with gas stations, neon signs, parking lots, and diners, but he is at his best when he uses color to poignantly portray scenes that are ostensibly far from “camera-ready”: a white 1960s telephone (Untitled [White Phone and Vacuum Cleaner], 1965–19741), for instance, in a room that seems to have just been emptied of people, furniture, and belongings except for the hose of a vacuum cleaner and a looping tangle of white wires on the floor by part of a wall, with a perforated square from which a single wire emerges, almost at the center of the frame, suddenly drawing attention to itself. This is Eggleston’s “secret lab,” where unprepossessing things are made into pictorial masterpieces.
In Louisiana (1971–1974), a blue General Electric logo on a torn piece of paper, a discarded Burger King paper cup, two empty cans, a very rusty chain wound around a thick wooden pole and secured to the back of an ancient aqua-green Chevy—which has red rear lights and whose bumper and wing motif are lined in chrome—and a Louisiana license plate above cracked, litter-strewn pavement make for a dazzling still life. And in Memphis (1971–1974), Eggleston captured the top of a passing hearse, with large red flowers pressed against one of its windows, a metal pot on the cream-colored roof containing an arrangement of dried tropical flowers and feathers dyed baby blue and acid green, as well as two pillows—one lilac, the other checked white and red—keeping the arrangement from toppling off the roof.
Color film is slow: that images like these are in focus is a technical feat. According to Adam Bartos, who belongs to a younger generation of color photographers that includes Mitch Epstein and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, “People don’t understand about the virtuosity of those pictures. They look like snapshots. But that’s not how it was, or is—technically, he knew exactly what he was doing. That’s really genius.”
William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939. His father, a plantation owner, died in World War II, and Bill grew up with his grandparents and mother in Sumner County, Tennessee. Eggleston’s cousin Maude Schuyler Clay, who is also a photographer, remembers him as “an introvert with an interest in electronics…who built a set of six-foot-high speakers and drove around town in a Ferrari.”2 His mother called him “very brilliant, very strange.” He had asthma as a boy and spent most of his time indoors playing the piano, and he bugged his entire family with microphones hidden throughout the house, perhaps in an attempt to preserve everything they said. In college he had an aversion to tests and refused to take them, talking his dean into letting him continue to study.
In 1964 Eggleston married Rosa Kate Dossett, a childhood friend who had also grown up on a plantation. “The handsome couple cut a striking figure across the Mississippi Delta, and in the early days they were known for their matching blue Cadillacs,” a local chronicle states. Eggleston photographed Rosa in 1973, lying on a bed, wrapped in a flowery yellow-and-white bedspread, from which only her face, hands, and two shapely legs emerge. The bed is neatly made beneath her and the light is on in the closet, as though she’d been about to dress. Twelve pairs of pumps hang on the closet door behind her in a bright-yellow canvas shoe rack, with a couple of ties hanging beside them, while on a small table, with something resembling a baby bottle on top of it, a television broadcasts black-and-white static.
Eggleston’s portraits—like the one of a salesman sitting despondently on the edge of his bed in a motel, his rigid steel-rimmed suitcase opened flat on a desk, or the one of a frail, thin woman on an outdoor sofa—always look like movie stills, and you feel you’ve seen the movie. It’s color that sets the scene, compels you to look—something has happened, or is about to happen. It is not surprising that Eggleston’s cinematic painterliness has long been a favorite of film directors such as Sofia Coppola (who, in Eggleston’s Portraits, notes her love for his photograph of a young woman lying on the ground in a flowery dress, her red hair spread about her shoulders), Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, and the Coen brothers.
Eggleston remembered that when he was a child, his mother had given him books on Georges Rouault and Giorgio de Chirico. He studied painting at the University of Mississippi for five years, but Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment made a great impression on him, and he took up photography, immersing himself in all the technical manuals he could find. A visiting professor at Mississippi, the New York artist Tom Young, gave him the best advice of his life, as Rosa recalls in the BBC documentary Imagine: “Bill at one time said to his great, highly respected friend [Young], ‘Well, what am I gonna photograph? Everything around here is so ugly!’ And our friend said, ‘Photograph the ugly stuff.’” Another piece of advice came from a fellow photographer: “Garry Winogrand told me, ‘Bill, you can take a good photograph of anything,’ and that’s always stuck with me.”
Eggleston had started with black-and-white, but he had a friend who had a night job at a photography lab that processed snapshots and that Eggleston would visit:
I started looking at these pictures coming out—they’d come out in a long ribbon—and although most of them were accidents, some were absolutely beautiful. So I started spending all night looking at these ribbons of pictures.
I was particularly struck by a picture of a guy who worked for a grocery store, pushing a shopping cart out in the late-afternoon sun—that one really stuck in my mind. I started daydreaming about taking a particular kind of picture, because I figured if amateurs working with cheap cameras could do this, I could use good cameras and really come up with something.3
The first color picture Eggleston shot (Memphis, 1965) was of a young man in a short-sleeved shirt pushing a train of shopping carts. He has reddish-blond hair thick with gel, a ducktail, is no older than twenty-two, and appears to be daydreaming. Eggleston said:
One night I stayed up figuring out what I was going to do the next day, which was to go to the big supermarket down the street…. It seemed like a good place to try things out. I had this new exposure system in mind, of overexposing the film so all the colors would be there, and by God it all worked.
His second innovative formal decision was to have the images printed using the dye-transfer method, an old process using cyan, yellow, and magenta screens to deliver deep saturation and colors that never faded. He discovered the process through a lab in Chicago while he was teaching at Harvard in the early 1970s. Listed as “the ultimate print,” it was also the most expensive, costing $1,000 for the first one.
Unlike Winogrand, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, or Tod Papageorge, Eggleston taught only briefly and rarely worked for commercial magazines. But he always seemed to have enough money to make prints of practically every picture he took, though he quickly decided he would take just one photo of a subject, “never two.” (The inital prints from the “Los Alamos” series were funded by a Guggenheim grant.) Dye transfer has now been superseded by inkjet printing. Eggleston’s thirty-six 60 x 44–inch pigment prints, which sold at Christie’s for almost $6 million in 2012 (a print of a tricycle sold for $578,000), were made from transparencies and scanned electronically.
In 1974, at the same time that he was shooting the “Los Alamos” series, and after Warhol introduced him to the Sony Porta-Pak video camera, Eggleston made Stranded in Canton, a thirty-hour black-and-white video of which a seventy-seven-minute version exists. He replaced the crude zoom lens that came with the camera with the kind of lens used on 16mm film cameras and modified it to capture infrared light. Eggleston said, “I would start and stop when I thought it was the right time.” He shot “in a club where you could barely see anything,” the camera “registering the heat more than reflected light.” The film begins like a home movie, with tender shots of two of his children, continues mostly in situations Walter Hopps once described as “a stupefaction night in Memphis,” and has little to do with Canton. One character says, “Everyone in their life in their own way they have all been stranded in Canton.”
His nightclub portraits collected in the book 5 x 7 were taken at the same time. Eggleston said of that series:
I was thinking simply of how to capture these kinds of moments and images, with the degree of definition. Mainly we were in this place that’s no longer in business—TGI Friday’s. The pictures were mostly taken around three in the morning, when everybody was loosened up, and I was, too. I was actually very straight myself, but there were people who had had quite a few.
Bartos says, “To go into a bar at night with a 5 x 7 camera is an act of photographic suicide. He could have done it with a flash and a little negative. But then you wouldn’t see every pore. They’re as sharp as Avedon photographs and that was the only way to do that.”
While studying photography at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the early 1970s we had it dinned into us, subliminally as it was never explicitly mentioned, that color was for amateurs, family snapshots, or crass commercialism. Cartier-Bresson, one of Eggleston’s heroes, said, “Color delights only salesmen and magazines.” And Walker Evans, Eggleston’s other hero, famously stated, though he later changed his mind, “There are four simple words for the matter, which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.” We were learning to develop and print black-and-white, and the masters whose work we looked at used only that medium.
But my first job was at the Museum of Modern Art, and I recall the opening of William Eggleston’s show “The Guide” in 1976. John Szarkowski was the already legendary head of the Department of Photography; at school we had closely studied his book on the history of photography, Looking at Photographs. He had hardly ever shown color photographs, much less devoted a catalog and an entire show to them. When Eggleston brought him his work, Szarkowski was won over by it right away. But it took him eight years to raise enough funds and get the support necessary within the museum to mount a show that to him marked “the beginning of modern color photography.” He considered previous attempts in that medium to have been “formless or pretty,” and “while editing directly from life, photographers have found it too difficult to see simultaneously both the blue and the sky.”
“The Guide” (the title was inspired by Michelin guides), which Szarkowski considered a “very personal collection of images,” contained the seventy-five photographs Szarkowski and Eggleston had chosen after projecting over two thousand transparencies onto a wall (Eggleston, who has an aversion to editing, admits that Szarkowski chose most of them). It is a primer on how to look at things you’re about to overlook—the inside of an oven, an old blue pick-up truck parked behind a horizontal wisteria vine, a green shower stall, part of a concrete stairway between two white walls, a dog lapping water from a puddle. Szarkowski wrote in the introduction, “As pictures…these seem to me perfect.” But the reception of Eggleston’s work was hostile. The New York Times critic Hilton Kramer thought the pictures “perfectly boring.” Ansel Adams sent Szarkowski a letter of indignation. The show was accused of “glossy pretension” and was said to be “the most hated show of the year.”
Time is a great healer of reactionary views in art. In photography’s journey from documentation to art, color was the logical next step. Many of the masters of the black-and-white medium had made a virtue of necessity—sticking to the gray scale and printing their own images to achieve the maximum desired effect. Eggleston wiped away the need for both those virtues by sending his photographs out to be printed by labs and using the most luscious color available. This appropriation of some of the aesthetics and techniques of advertising was in keeping with Pop Art—with Warhol and James Rosenquist primarily. A younger generation of photographers had begun to work in color, and Eggleston was their model.
The night of the opening of his current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, Eggleston, nattily dressed in a slim black suit with a silk bow tie worn untied around his white shirt collar and black patent-leather shoes, told me that he still keeps a harpsichord, which needs to be fixed, and a piano at the big house that he gave up living in after his wife Rosa died in 2015. “But I still go there often,” he said. “To see what’s going on?” I asked. “There’s nothing going on there,” he said.
In Plains, Georgia, Eggleston failed to find Jimmy Carter at home, and in his pictures there is never any sign of an “election.” It was as though he wished to investigate how a peanut field felt about Carter becoming president. Or how little a tree might care about the outcome of the elections.