William Eggleston
Los Alamos

SFMOMA
August 21, 2004–January 4, 2005

October 2004

In one of the great photographic legends of our century, William Eggleston’s career began in 1967 on the doorstep of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He appeared with a briefcase of slides to show to John Szarkowski and thereby initiated a relationship that culminated nine years later in the MoMA’s second show of color photography.

Szarkowski made Eggleston a famous man—infamous at first—for his “democratic” approach to subject matter. Meaning that, for Eggleston as an artist, nothing is inherently more or less important to look at. Los Alamos is a body of work shot between 1966 and 1974, and with this series Eggleston wanted to take the concept of democracy a step further: the presentation of the work was intended to be democratic as well. He wanted to publish all of the pictures—thousands of them—in portfolios, or show them only as a full group, with no commentary, titles, or representational hierarchy.

At the time, the photographer was busy organizing William Eggleston’s Guide with Szarkowski, and the Los Alamos pictures, made mostly on road trips with his friend and curator Walter Hopps, were left unedited and unprinted. The democratic hanging never happened. Recently, though, Eggleston, his son Winston, and again Walter Hopps gathered up the negatives and test prints that were scattered among Eggleston’s friends. They edited a portfolio of these earliest of Eggleston’s color pictures. Thomas Weski purchased the portfolio and hung it at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne. The exhibition is now in San Francisco.

Corey Keller, SFMoMA’s assistant curator of photography, selected seventy-three pictures from the portfolio along with three galleries of other photographs that provide a kind of context for Los Alamos. In the first gallery hang Eggleston’s more widely known photographs; the second displays photographs by other photographers working in (or on) the South; and the third gallery is reserved rather irrelevantly for Deborah Luster’s project from 1998 entitled One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, in which she photographed inmates from three penitentiaries, printed their portraits on aluminum plates and locked up the plates in a steel cabinet.

The gallery of Southern photography includes work from the 1930s up until now: pictures by, among others, Dorothea Lange, Emmet Gowin, and Sally Mann. The room, overbearingly black and white, provides a concise, thorough look at the South. Keller describes the individual works as “investigations of the particular, the immediate and the everyday,” but together, they swallow the South whole.

They also pull Eggleston’s work into very distinct focus. He is not a photographer of the South. Despite the fact that he too investigates the particular, the immediate, and the everyday, his project is not the portraiture of any landscape. If he photographs fences, kneecaps, and the hoods of cars, it is a process of material appropriation, not the appropriation of identity, narrative, or context. The man loves color and has always wanted his prints to be as sensually available as possible, making dye transfer prints from slides and sometimes overexposing his film so that the color might be richer. In no series is this basic, unbridled, visual instinct so obvious as Los Alamos.

In the introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide, Szarkowski says, “I once heard William Eggleston say that the nominal subjects of his pictures were no more than a pretext for the making of color photographs…I did not believe him, although I can believe that it might be an advantage to him to think so, or to pretend to think so. To me it seems that the pictures reproduced here are about the photographer’s home, about his place, in both important meanings of that word. One might say about his identity.”

It is not Eggleston’s relationship to home, to place, or to the South, however, that stands out in Los Alamos. What comes across most playfully and most sincerely here is the act of photographing itself. The pictures are unflinchingly spontaneous. Eggleston has said that he never takes a second frame of a scene, never brackets, never changes angles. It is not the subject that inspires him, in other words, but the miraculous convergence of where he is and what something looks like.

The neighboring gallery at SFMoMA, which shows his most famous pieces, thus becomes a really interesting foil for Los Alamos. Here are the punchiest of his photographs, which seem to describe individual colors: the blood red ceiling or the milky green shower stall, the white icebox, the black oven. These pictures are the embodiment of Szarkowski’s theory that photography cannot say the same thing twice, or, as he put it in the introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide, “only the description itself identifies the thing described, and each new description redefines the subject. It is not possible to describe one subject in two different ways.” Los Alamos, as a group, takes the emphasis off of that kind of perspective: here the thing described is Eggleston’s way of seeing and the show makes it possible to describe that subject in seventy-three different ways.

There is no single subject in any of these pictures, and that is democratic artmaking according to Eggleston. It’s taken thirty years, but here is a hanging that comes close to the artist’s intentions, comfortable with process rather than conclusions. Los Alamos comes to light late in the artist’s career, and therefore doesn’t try to make conclusions or reputations. It is a group of photographs whose sole point is discovery. It shows us how refreshing a young artist’s process can be.

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