At War With the Obvious 

The photograph on this week's cover is by world-renowned Memphis photographer William Eggleston, who, in the 1970s, stunned the art world when his prosaic and groundbreaking images of Southern life were shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Eggleston's 1976 show is widely recognized as the singular event that brought color photography into the world of high art. Prior to Eggleston's emergence on the scene, black-and-white images had been the only photography recognized as such since, well, the invention of the camera.

Now, nearing 81 and still living in Memphis, Eggleston has secured his status as a major American artist and pioneer with decades of subsequent work. His photos are celebrated and analyzed in books and essays. They are displayed in museums and galleries around the world. There is, as you may know, much discussion about a possible Eggleston museum in Memphis that would showcase his work — and works by others who've followed in his artistic footsteps. Read Jon W. Sparks' cover story for all the details.

click to enlarge William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1978 -  - Type C print
  • William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1978
    Type C print

I first encountered Eggleston's photographs in the early 1990s, when I moved to Memphis. I had (and have) friends who knew him and who would delight in telling me tales of his eccentricities and his unconventional lifestyle. To be honest, I knew of him as an iconic Memphis character before I knew his work. When I first saw his photos at a gallery, I was stunned by their apparent simplicity, their depth of color, and their audacity.

Intrigued, I read more about Eggleston and discovered many more of his oddly compelling images: the front of a car parked against a brick wall, a gaudy McDonald's restaurant next to an equally gaudy Foto Hut, a stack of tires between two vehicles, a solitary rusty tricycle in a suburban street. And there were his photos of women, often of a certain age, Southern females gone to seed, wearing gaudy bell-bottoms or floral prints, matronly types smoking in a diner or walking to a car.

There were others that struck me: a child staring from an open car door, bright tomatoes on a kitchen counter, a vase of flowers, and famously, a blood-red juke joint ceiling. Every photo was saturated with dye-transfer color that pulled the eye all over the piece. Every shot provoked questions: What exactly is happening here? Who is this person? What am I supposed to see?

That may be the point: There is nothing to see and there is everything to see. And you're not "supposed" to see anything. The photograph is what it is — and what you get from it is up to you. Eggleston's work sprung from his theory of a "democratic camera" — a nonjudgmental glass eye that allows us to see all-too-familiar sights as new — and look at them as long as we like.

There were those I knew in Memphis who thought it all rather silly. Eggleston's pictures were just weird snapshots, they said. Anyone could take them. What's the big deal? It's just a picture of a tricycle. The emperor has no clothes.

They were wrong, I think.

The writer Richard Woodward has called Eggleston's work "fearless naturalism — a belief that by looking patiently at what others ignore or look away from, interesting things can be seen." Eggleston himself has said he is "at war with the obvious." And, of course, sometimes what seems obvious is anything but. Or is that too obvious?

Maybe it's more difficult to understand Eggleston's impact now, when almost literally everyone you know is a photographer, when the simplest of snapshots from a phone camera can be manipulated with dozens of filters, resized, cropped, enhanced — all with the swipe of a finger. Every day, millions of people are creating often striking and compelling photos of children, cars, food, pets, sunsets, faces, etc., though few would argue that they're creating art.

With our social media photos, we are advertising ourselves, creating virtual scrapbooks for the world to take in, using a lens through which we want others to see us. What's personal becomes very public.

Maybe that's the true secret of Eggleston's genius. His art runs exactly counter: What seems at first glance to be public becomes an experience that's very personal.

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