Published on December 22nd, 2014 | by Pascal Ordonneau1
William Eggleston : Looking at a Colored World
Paris/Fondation Cartier-Bresson through December 21st.
W.E. “I think that my photographs are components of the very book that I am in the process of writing.”
Writing a chronicle on William Eggleston’s works is pretty daunting : he has become an icon. You can’t skip him. After so many years on the stage, he has turned into a leader in the eyes of young artists. He has been driving many of them to forge a new way of looking at objects, people, and landscapes, and improving them. Eggleston has not only invented a new style, but also a new perception. As a peer of Meyerowitz, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, and Garry Winogrand, he has been one of the American photographers who have reinvented the art of photography. This new kind of photograph emphasizes big cities’ features and atmospheres. It highlights pedestrians passing-by, buses, and cars, and poses them as the corner-stones of a new vision of the world. This method of depicting life makes new sensations merge together with unique visions of people, streets and objects.
William Eggleston is one of the leaders of this radical revolution. It makes sense to look back to the XIXth century « soft revolution » of Courbet, Manet, Cézanne and their peers. They altogether reversed the « onus probandi» as far as the model was concerned : they moved people, landscapes and various day to day events into pictoral objects. What matters is no longer the delicacy of a visage, the accuracy of the leaves in a tree, nor the rising of the sun over the sea. Conversely, colors, structures, and forms have become increasingly their main concern. « Young ladies resting by the edge of the Seine river » from Courbet announced this revolution which ended up with cubism. The white gown of one of the girls turned out to be the key part of this work, and both the « resting girls » became part of the background.
The modern art of photography, some half a century ago, went through this revolutionary move. At that time, it had become urgent for photographers to escape from the world of documentation, information and nice pictures with morals and social enthousiasm coined from the 1930’s. There has been a need to consider the vast world in new ways, and to be looking at people and events around us instead of being stuck to Second-World-War-time deeds of heroism. Other objects and actions need to be shown. This is the tribute we have to pay to Eggleston: together with some other « visionnaires » he has made possible « un regard neuf » ; looking at people and facts « sans importance » as if banality were more meaningful than traditonal images of hope and courage, as if beauty might be found in objects to which we don’t usually pay attention.
May we say that Eggleston has been reinventing the art of photography, using very solid art techniques, and not departing from them. These are not photographs, haphazardly shot with good luck to catch light or shade. Instead, Eggleston and his colleagues are artists who plan their piece in the most profound and artistically-creative way. That which occurs under their careful watch is doubly treated, both at the time of the shooting, in which it’s decided in what way to take the picture, and at the time of the choosing of the negative, and in this, which part is worth being kept.
Among all the photos that are presented at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson, the first ones which come to view show, by their rigorous framing, that they are based on an « interior » motif, like the one with the light bulb suspended from the ceiling. The break-away from the day to day is, in this occasion, so obvious, in a way so reduced, and an expression so simple, that one can grasp how new this vision is. A little farther away, the photo of a milk jar, of a Coca-Cola machine, and of a cake — illustrate this perfectly. And thus the heros are no longer the conquerors of Iwo Jima ; that which merits consideration is found in our immediate environment.
This new way of considering our world has brought about a rapprochement with the Hopper painting style : a bar in Memphis, a KFC, a restaurant at nighttime, the gas pumps in Los Alamos. Scenery or absence ? Or could we even say that scenery is a false presence ?
What made Eggleston a true « revolutionary » is the bolt of color which he made explode within the photographer’s world. Colors and everyday objects, are turned into the subjects of the photos. These become « works of art » and move beyond the world of photography : documentation and information. « Pink Bathroom » is a daunting work based on the contrast of the vivid, flashy, yellow curlers with bathroom walls and pipes that show rosier than a rose.
Last but not least, from the « Cartier-Bresson » exhibit, one of the colored photos demonstrates the concern for formatting on a canvas which shows a tendancy toward pure abstract art in: «Hotelroom with fluorescents». This photograph demonstrates that Eggleston’s art moves toward the abstract. In this photo, a fluorescent lamp is flashing a white-blue light, in a room where shadowy furniture is brown-colored and plunged into a dark atmosphere. The fluorescent light flashes so much, that you might think that this photograph is simply a plain photo of fluorescent light and nothing else, with the rest of the room being the background for the white-blue light. « La boucle est bouclée » : Eggleston’s photos have been leaving the field of reality representation, and going toward a new universe. In the latter, the photographer is taking the opportunity to build new way of looking at people and objects. As such, Eggleston’s work is that of a « visionnaire ».