Eggleston at the NPG (and a further musing on naked emperors)

If any photographer’s work invited the naive response, “my kid could do that” it might be William Egglestons’s photographs (Tucker, in Stepan (ed) 2005,170)

Anne Tucker also tells us (ibid) that “Eggleston’s pictures possess the seeming simplicity of snapshots”. I start with these observations because they match my own opinions on viewing the exhibition of Eggleston’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Unlike Tucker (whose article accompanies an image of a table with condiment bottles and an out-of-focus crockery cabinet) I retain what she, insultingly, describes as my ‘naive response’.

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Although Eggleston is not primarily a portraitist, a comment made both by the wall-notes and by Ian Jeffrey (2008,330) the curators at the NPG have put together an exhibition of some 100 images from the 1960s onward. His portraits are all taken in and around Memphis, Tennessee and a high proportion are of family or friends.

In the first space, we see early monochrome work from the 1960s. These are smaller than the main colour images, typically 8×10. The images appear candid but there is an element of design, whether carefully composed or shot on the spur of the decisive moment is unclear.

The second space contains much larger, colour images from 1970 to 1975. Most are taken with a 5×7 view camera, an instrument with which Eggleston was clearly accomplished. The images have a characteristic shallow depth of field but very accurately placed plane of focus. This is clearly seen in the image above, of girlfriend Marcia Hare; the face and the out-thrown left arm are sharp (the camera a little less so) but the lower part of her dress, and most of the grass on which she is lying, are blurred giving a dream-like overall effect but focussing the viewers attention on the important parts. Incidentally, this image is displayed next to an earlier photo of Hare in a nightclub, dancing and with head thrown back, in a vertical version of the same pose.

However, the outstanding image, for me, in this space is one of Eggleston’s cousin, Shelley Schuyler, standing in a long dress gazing into the camera and holding a champagne glass. She is sharp overall but the depth of field is very tightly controlled, as seen in the grass at her feet.

My overall impression of this space is good. Large images (the head-shots are larger than life) and saturated colour seem to capture the personality of the subject and I left the room  feeling that I knew many of them. This is a clear counter-example to Ted Grant’s oft-quoted maxim, “When you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.”

The third space, ‘Eggleston and Colour’, tells of his adopting the dye-transfer process and the shock felt by the photographic art world at his 1976 MoMA exhibition of colour prints. His contribution to the history of photography is the forced realisation that art photographs do not have to be monochrome.

This space has some thought-provoking images such as the one above, of Eggleston’s uncle Adyn Schuyler and a black ‘house man’. This is the American Deep South in the 1970s and the relationship between the figures says something about race relations of the period. Jasper, the servant, stands a few paces behind his employer but mirrors (consciously or unconsciously) his pose.

There is also a 1985 ‘Portrait of Elvis Presley in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee’ which is a photograph of a photograph of Presley surrounded by memorabilia.

However, there are photographs in this space that appear to be no more than very large snapshots, and led me to muse on imperial nudity and Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story. To return briefly to Tucker’s comments at the top of this posting, it is the ‘naive response’ of Andersen’s child that exposes the truth of the exposed emperor.

I wonder what the response to many of the images (even the two that I have highlighted) would be if they were presented as 5×3 enprints in a Boots envelope rather than as massive prints on a gallery wall. How many would make it into the family album? Frankly, there are some which would not make it into my shoebox (for instance the Dennis Hopper image in which the alleged subject turns away from the camera and is unsharp compared with the dashboard of the car). To what extent does our acceptance of a photograph as ‘art’ depend on its being presented in an art context – printed large and hung on a white gallery wall?

Coincidentally, on the same day that I wrote this posting, an article in the Times (Whipple 2016) reported on recent psychological research suggesting that people’s reactions to an image vary depending on whether they are told it is art or not. This is a topic to be followed  up, although possibly in a later course module.

References

Jeffrey, I. (2008) How to read a photograph London: Thames & Hudson

National Portrait Gallery (2016) William Eggleston Portraits [online] at: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php (accessed 18 September 2016)

Stepan, P (ed) (2005) Icons of Photography – The 20th Century Munich: Prestel

Whipple, T. (2016) Call it art and that’s what it becomes In: The Times September 19 2016, p.11

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