Channeling William Eggleston – 2

I posted a photo of an old chair last week and titled it “Channeling William Eggleston.” I failed to realize that many might not know or understand who he was and what his contributions to modern photography might have been. Back when I talked to classes about him I always showed a slide of a quote by Walker Evans,”Color Photography is vulgar photography.” Eggleston is generally regarded as the photographer who brought color photography to recognition as a valid genre of photography. His exhibition at the MOMA in 1976 was initially viewed as a critical disaster. I just ran across as terrific short film re: William Eggleston on the site ASX. It is definitely worth watching. In the film made by Renier Holzemer, Eggleston says that the criticism did not bother him at all. It made him realize that the critics were not doing their jobs. He says, “This was the Museum of Modern Art,” and he puts emphasis on the word Modern. He goes on, “They just did not understand what they were seeing. Later many apologized for what they wrote.” This film is about 25 minutes and is worth every one of them. It appears longer initially because the video repeats after the English version in a German language version, so don’t be frightened by the seemingly long appearance of the playback bar.

Actuality is a term that Walker Evans used to describe his photographs. He meant that the images were what he saw, they were symbols of the actual things, people, or places. William Eggleston describes his images as “Life today.” He emphasizes the word today. Eggleston and Evans are saying much the same thing. They are photographing what they find. If anything, history suggests that of the two Evans was more likely to re-arrange a scene for a better photograph. See the chapter in Earl Morris’ book: Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.countryside2013-40




Being of the South, I often see the humor, the irony, and the affection for his place that reflect in Eggleston’s photos. I am not sure that these things are intended, but they do attract his eye. Then his background as an artist sort of kicks in and he becomes enmeshed in color and form. Whatever the actual process, all of us are fortunate that he works his magic and makes such beautiful, intriguing images.

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What Was All This Equipment Used For? Ice? Dirt? Rocks?

The Heavy Equipment Exhibition occupied several large fields, mainly cut corn fields, as well as  large buildings owned by the promoter of the show. Apparently he loves these machines and takes his hobby very seriously. As we entered the space several groups were firing up their engines, others were polishing theirs, and some were comparing notes between machines. There were many of large size, at least one that was a two story tall machine, others were smaller more recognizable small tractors from the 40s and 50s. Some had spiked wheels, others large steel rings with studs or crosspieces to maintain grip. We speculated what conditions required the ones with spiked wheels.  This query was answered this week-end when I watched Ken Burns 2- part series “The Dust Bowl.” This deals with the ravaging of the plains in the early part of the 20th century, the subsequent drought and the huge dust storms that made people feel as if the world would end. Watching the continual plowing and turning up of the soil I could recognize some of the early gasoline fired engines hauling threshers or harrows. Many of the engines had those spiked metal wheels. No doubt required by the hard-baked nature of the soil in the plains. It is a bit of recent history that is not especially well taught in American History classes. I recall trying to teach a bit about the great depression and the economic catastrophe of the 1930s  in my History of Photography classes. I subscribed to the premise that to understand the photography one should have some grounding in the history of the time and culture being depicted. Responses to this approach varied widely; I was able to sell it more on the basis of my passion for it  than the logic of the approach.

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The film “The Dust Bowl” can be streamed from PBS. It is also available from most of the usual sources for movies varying from Netflix to Amazon.

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Channeling William Eggleston

On Halloween went out looking around and found an old abandoned house. This old red chair was out in the yard and for some reason it appealed to me. There were other things around that were equally appealing. I sort of like old and abandoned places. They spark my imagination and I start to think about who lived there. I wondered where the family had gone, whether a Hispanic family had lived there and were forced to leave when the chicken processing plants shut down during the recent economic downturn, did the old tractor suggest they were farmers? There was a poster in the window describing how hard but dependable women were. Could this have been a single parent family’s home? Was it a home operated beauty shop? All sorts of things that are found in the rural South passed through my mind.



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