Eggleston ... but it's just an excuse
We talk about William Eggleston in this article, but only as a vehicle to reason about the critical evaluation of a photo. We will do this with the help of one of his photographs. Hence, talking about Eggleston is only an excuse to deal with this topic, that's why the title: we do not really talk about Eggleston, we “use” him for other purposes.
If one expects — as a result of this work — to obtain a series of steps that allow him or her to attach a value to a photo — an esthetic value of course, certainly not a monetary one — well, that person will be disappointed. What we get instead will be a couple of big questions.
William Eggleston is one of the great photographers of the second half of the 20th century, American, born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee. If we have to attach a label to him, he was the one who elevated color to the role of major player in photographic art. It could be said that before Eggleston fine art photography was solely black and white; after Eggleston the fine art world accepted color as an equal of black and white. Both Porter and Haas did precede Eggleston in giving color a front seat in the art world, but when one thinks of the “icebreaker of color” in photography, the name that comes up is — invariably — that of Eggleston.
Ok, please do not pick on me for what I just said, because I am indeed oversimplifying re: how color got into fine art photography. The process was more nuanced, but this description is good enough for the goal of this work and does not affect the considerations that follow.
It is with a photo of Eggleston that I want to investigate on the problems that arise when analyzing a photo critically.
This is the photo.
The photo was taken in Memphis between 1971 and 1974 and is part of a project entitled “Los Alamos,” which developed in fits and starts between 1966 and 1975. The project eventually coalesced into a book by the same title. This very photo is on the cover.
For the sake of completeness, I shall point out that Eggleston's most famous book — or at least the most cited one — is “2 1/4,” which is the measurement of the 6x6 format in inches. Usually this is recommended as the first book to get closer to the photographer, while “Los Alamos” or other books are suggested for further study. Among the other books, we have to mention — given the general theme of this website — “5x7,’” a book that collects Eggleston's photos made with a 5x7in view camera. In my opinion it is a discontinuous work, less powerful than others. It may be worth talking about it eventually, if only for the kind of equipment used by Eggleston.
Let's go back to our photo and start a critical analysis of it. Before doing this, however, let's assume that the photographer be unknown. And here we are already facing a dilemma: is it right to evaluate a photo without knowing who took it? Shouldn’t a photo — like any work of art — “stand on its own”? Does knowing who made it (in the sense of knowing the photographer's personal history, esthetic philosophy and the motivations behind the shot) lead to a richer and more serious analysis or it contaminates the critical process?
Looking at the photo we immediately realize that there are different levels of critique; let me list some of them.
- “It's poorly composed, her head got cut off. What kind of portrait is that?”
- “Bottom line, it’s the photo of a dress. I certainly do not see any artistic value there.”
- “The colors are beautiful, but the composition doesn't convince me: the girl partially seen on the left should have been cropped.”
- “I wonder what that P on the hand means. But, wait, is it a P?”
I would refrain from mocking the statements above by calling them “stupid,” “superficial,” or “ignorant.” It is not so simple.
Another level of analysis — certainly not the only one — is that I can call my own.
Why isn't the face or the whole body photographed but only the dress? Because the dress is the strongest clue, the sign that pains your heart, what Barthes would call the punctum. That kind of dress/uniform (mini dress with knee socks) was worn for only a few years all over the Western world but especially in the United States during the period of flower-power, Height Ashbury, the early seventies, post-Woodstock. Famous rock singers wore similar dresses, many girls wore it in the San Francisco Bay Area — maybe runaways from home rebelling against baby-boom parents horrified by the shortness of it. The photo tells us nothing about the geographical location. Who do we have in the photo? A teenager going to a concert at Fillmore East? A midwestern high school sweetheart who wears it to emulate her more emancipated peers on both coasts? A cheerleader who just finished practice? Today, after fifty years, is she buried somewhere stricken dead by heroin when she was 25 or is she now a grandmother, happily married for forty years to a now retired bank employee, both going to church every Sunday? This photo tells a very rich story, immense in its facets. This photo is a masterpiece.
Is this analysis of the photo objectively more satisfying than those I have listed before? (I used the term “more satisfying” instead of “better” because I do not know what “better” means in this context.)
This analysis of mine has not be created incrementally through a rational process and has not undergone several revisions. What I wrote above in italics wrote itself in my mind the first time I saw the photo, without any conscious filter applied to it. But where does the source of this “immediate, unfiltered reaction” come from? If I rationalize the why, I shall conclude that that writing in italics originates from having lived many years in the United States, having always been interested and emotionally involved in American culture and its political and social history. In short, my reading of the photograph derives from forty years of intense involvement with the themes that are integral part of this photo. If the photo had been of a Russian girl from the seventies, for example, I would not have known what to say. I would have been unable to express any comment. Or maybe I would have taken refuge in a bland “it does not talk to me.”
Let us consider these photos now.
What artistic value do these photos have? They are photos of the same subject, I cropped them on purpose to be able to compare them with Eggleston's photo. The heads do not show and they stop more or less at the knees, just like Eggleston's photo. Some of these photos come from mail order catalogs of the 70s specialized in youth fashion. If Eggleston's photo is a masterpiece, these must be too. Or not? And if they are not, why?
They are not because they were not taken by a photographer who was researching American society, but was “just” a capable professional who worked in the production of mail order catalogs? So, does the esthetic value of a photo depend on who takes the photograph? On the photographer's manifesto?
We have finally arrived at the two big questions that I promised you as a result and conclusion of this chat.
Big Question # 1. When reading critically a photo, is it necessary to know the context in which the photo was taken and be aware of the esthetic philosophy of the photographer who took it? But if this is true, all of us — including critics, who are not omniscient — are able to understand only a small subset of the visual works we look at. And for all the other works? We don't understand them. So what does it mean "to read them"? To say “I like it” or “I don't like it” — while using three hundred words and an obscure prose to express it?
Big Question # 2. The day after Eggleston took the photo, it contained nothing of what I wrote in the paragraph in italics. There was no punctum because the dress was not iconic, it became iconic later. So? Was Eggleston's photo the day after it was taken meaningless and it gained artistic value over time? What is the point of talking about contemporary art if — without the burden of time on it — one cannot assign a figure of merit to it? Shall we conclude that it makes no sense to talk about contemporary art because it is a contradiction in terms? If it is art, it can’t be contemporary and if it is contemporary, it can’t be art?
I have given myself some answers — confused, disheveled, and not at all carved in stone.
You figure out yours.