William Eggleston in 2016, by Wolfgang Tillmans
William Eggleston is one of the most important photographers of the 20th Century. The impact that he has yielded, passes the realms of calculation. He was also one of the first artists I had the fortune to know and work with, when I began my long career within commercial galleries, during my early 20s.
History is a strange entity – constantly in revision. From where we sit, it is nearly impossible to understand the creative context which existed at the beginning of Eggleston’s career. It was marked by a deep fracture, which no longer exists. When he entered the world of photography, the medium was not considered to be a fine art – on par with painting or sculpture, as it is today. It was a commercial idiom, or one, when applied with a distinctly creative eye – in cases such as Man Ray, Robert Frank, or Diane Arbus, largely exhibited in isolated galleries within museums, or specialty boutiques. Photographs were almost never allowed to share space with other “elevated” mediums, as they do today.
Eggleston, who spent decades cross-crossing American with his trusty Leica, was instrumental in the process of perceptual change surrounding photography’s place in the world, which began during the 1970’s – a growing belief that it was a creative form on par with all others. His contribution was so seminal, that the entire context of contemporary photography owes him a debt. He was among the first to see the abstract beauty in everyday life – vastly expanding the resonant potential within the idea of subject, and he was among the first to approach color photography, which, until then, had been viewed as a commercial or colloquial form.
While it is easy to dwell on the paradigm shattering ideas which Eggleston introduced, it’s equally important to distinguished them from the images themselves. His photographs are among the most beautiful and remarkable that have ever been made. They knock the wind out of you, forcing the eye to see the world anew. It’s no wonder that they had the effect they did.
William Eggleston – Stranded In Canton (1973)
Remarkably, despite being one of the most important photographers of the last century, Eggleston’s creative adventures did not end there. During the early 70’s he created one of the earliest works of video art – the wild and incredible Stranded In Canton, which was no less revolutionary and tide changing as his photographic work. It stands on its own in art history.
Something of a lost breed – a semi-tragic and creatively brilliant southern gentleman, Eggleston is the sort of figure you only expect to encounter within a Faulkner novel. Known for his hard drinking and heavy smoking, he is incredibly unpretentious, curious, and down to earth, but rarely says a word. When he does, his utterances emerge from an internal world which is singular and remarkably abstract. Like many gentleman of a bygone age, creativity is an extension of curiosity, and a vehicle for the shadowy voice, emerging from behind the curtains of his mind.
Eggleston’s voice largely presents itself within images, rather than speech, something which resonates with his belief that each creative field is its own world, capable of accessing truths that the other can not. Of course, images can not say it all. It makes sense that he might need more than one. In addition to his endeavors in photography and film, Eggleston has made music for most of his life.
William Eggleston – Musik (2017)
I’ve been aware of Eggleston’s musical life for years. I remember it briefly coming up in a conversation with him during the early 2000’s, but he’s never been one to draw attention to himself, and probably just shrugged. With exception of a track or two, most of it has remained almost entirely unheard, made and recorded in the privacy of his own home (notably, he also played piano on an outtake of Big Star’s 3rd). This is beginning to change. Two weeks ago, Secretly Canadian issued a lavish two LP set of his musical works, simply titled Musik.
On strictly artistic terms, Musik isn’t really my thing. Comprised of bedroomy, meandering improvisations on synths and piano, it’s nice, but doesn’t deliver the gut punch that meets my criteria for a full review. That said, when taken as a means to access one of the 20th Century’s most innovative minds, it is worthy of exploration – entry into a series of thoughts as they progress. You can check it further on Secretly Canadian’s site. Whichever way you lean, the label helped produce a short documentary on Eggleston’s musical pursuits, directed by Rick Alverson, which is lovely, and extremely worth of a dip. I thought I’d take this opportunity to pass it on. Enjoy, and it encourages those less aware of Eggleston, to explore his work more.
William Eggleston – Musik Documentary (2017)