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William Eggleston is a major American photographer - he is listed
on the Masters of Photography website -
and so, unlike most of the other photographers reviewed on Metapsychology,
it is possible to find a fair number of websites discussing his
work. Some people have disputed whether Eggleston's work is art,
because his subject matter is generally banal - cars in parking
lots, cars in driveways, abandoned cars by the side of the road,
a billboard and advertising signs. What's more, his depiction
of these items is apparently without irony, indeed almost without
any comment at all. Eggleston seems to love simplicity; rarely
do his pictures include human subjects, and when they do, the
people are not very active, maybe just reading, or looking into
the camera. The many cars pictured are not moving, and they don't
even have anyone behind the wheel. There's a stillness and quiet
to these images.
It is hard to find any social commentary here, even though the
subject is the South of the USA. Even in the picture of a Winston
Lights billboard on the top of a building, with a wall painted
orange and a couple of air conditioners sticking out, under a
blue sky, with black car parked next to the building, there's
not a hint that Eggleston is interested in the role of tobacco
in the south. It seems that the sign is chosen simply as a subject
because the color of the cigarette packet and the lettering match
the color of the wall. Eggleston frames his shot purely for aesthetic
considerations. If there's a social dimension to his work, it
seems mainly one of love for the unconventional beauty that he
finds. Many of his images have a sense of composition similar
to that of minimalist art, almost as if Eggleston sees his pictures
just as patters of colors. In short, most of his work seems to
avoid any attempt to make a statement about contemporary society
or the quality of lfe.
On the other hand, there is an emotional tone to these images;
nearly every one, even those featuring people, has a sense of
emptiness, their beauty of the composition notwithstanding. A
boarded up house with a piece of wood with "CAFE" painted
on it nailed to the front looks desolate. The neon "BAR &
LOUNGE" sign glows at dusk, but there are no windows in the
side of the building facing the camera, and there's nobody going
in to eat. A household electronics store is covered in homemade
and cheap signs; a small sign on the door handle says "OPEN
COME IN" but there is nobody around, and it's hard to imagine
that the store is doing well in its competition with the local
WalMart. Even a shot of a bright red shiny truck lit by the sunlight,
which seems to take a boyish pleasure in its subject, shows an
empty cab, and no surroundings to tell us who owns the truck or
what it is doing there. The pictures don't even have titles.
It would be possible for a photographer to take the same pleasure
in colors, using real objects to create careful compositions,
and to find beauty the scenes in the American South while at the
same time depicting warmth and connection in people's lives. But
that's not Eggleston's style, and even if some may find his work
too formal to really love his work, his consistent ability to
find and frame the ordinary in unexpected ways demands admiration.
© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks
on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.