“Poet of the mundane.” That's what the LACMA press material calls photographer William Eggleston, and that's how “the Eggleston legend” usually goes: Reclusive Southern gentleman, a soft-spoken, polite savant out of the pages of Eudora Welty or William Faulkner, turns his camera on the neglected vistas of Memphis and environs and in the process makes color photography safe for museums.
It's a neat legend, one that is readily available to anyone trying to describe the genius of Eggleston's photographs, and one that has helped Eggleston craft his public persona to this day.
But the Eggleston legend, that shorthand way of describing his considerable achievement, papers over all the delicious contradictions that define the photographer's unique journey. That journey has been on display at LACMA for a couple of months as “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008.” You have only two weeks left to experience it, and you most certainly should.
But this “poet of the mundane” business can be reductive and, in a sense, limits a complex appreciation of the photographer's craft. Let's look at the chronology: Eggleston was born in 1939 and spent his formative years in the South. But by the age of 28 he was spending time in New York with Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus and showing his work to the Museum of Modern Art. By the time he published his first important portfolio, 14 Pictures (1974), he was only in his mid-30s and had the seal of approval of both the Guggenheim Foundation and Harvard University.
Eggleston is a canny septuagenarian now, recently photographed by Juergen Teller for a Marc Jacobs ad campaign, canoodling with Charlotte Rampling on a disheveled bed. For more than 30 years he has been feted by every conceivable institution in the contemporary art establishment, his crowning achievement being the current LACMA retrospective (originally curated for the Whitney, New York's most underrated — and thus hippest — great museum).
During those decades, Eggleston also spent time in the Chelsea Hotel romancing Warhol superstar Viva and sharing accommodations with Sid and Nancy. Back home in Memphis he counted as confidants indie-rock godfather figure Alex Chilton, cult music producer Jim Dickinson and the great Stanley Booth, author of one of the best (if not the best) books on rock music ever, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Rock groups of impeccable taste have been licensing Eggleston's images as cover art since Chilton's band Big Star's Radio City (1974), and David Byrne even set an entire film (True Stories) in an Egglestonian universe.
Oh, yes — in the early 1970s, Eggleston pioneered gritty video art with strangely evocative, almost anthropological footage of Southern nightlife, shooting people at play who had never seen a video camera before. The whole aesthetic of Harmony Korine and Vice TV? Eggleston was doing something very similar 40 years ago.
So much for “the reclusive Southern gentleman,” right? Well, yes and no. And in that contradiction we find one of the two keys to Eggleston's great achievement as he is celebrated, rightly so, while he's still alive and thriving.
At this point Eggleston is as much a “poet of the mundane” as Bob Dylan — a longtime Malibu resident and a millionaire since his early 20s — is a “folk troubadour.” But like Dylan — like all truly great artists — it's in his deep contradictions that the work transcends similar-but-not-quite attempts at doing the same thing. (How many millions of people must have pointed their Kodaks at backstreets in the South in the early '70s? How many bouffants and diners must have been photographed?)
And besides these contradictions, Eggleston's got the craft. Though pages and pages have been devoted to the subject matter of his images (anything by his friend Booth, including an essay in the show's catalog, is essential reading), the truth is that Eggleston is a consummate formalist.
Shapes, lines, colors, even his revolutionary discovery of the artistic application of the till-then exclusively commercial dye-transfer project, point at a careful visual designer. Sure, Eggleston sees abstract beauty in the mundane, but he also sees it in less mundane subjects — witness commissions for Coca-Cola, Paramount Studios, glossy-magazine work and even a unique take on Elvis' Graceland mansion.
Eggleston's images continue moving into the future: As a technically minded photographer, Eggleston, for all his Faulknerian garb, has always been a futurist. The LACMA website offers downloads of some of his images enhanced as “optimal for desktop computer screens, smartphone screens and iPad screens.” This gadgetry is a long way from the photographer's grungy Stranded in Canton video footage (mesmerizingly projected on a gallery wall at LACMA), but it's a road this deceptively simple, and always rewarding, artist has traveled with singular aplomb.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON: DEMOCRATIC CAMERA, PHOTOGRAPHS AND VIDEO, 1961–2008 | Through Jan. 16 | Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA | 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | (323) 857-6000 | lacma.org