Review

William Eggleston’s “Los Alamos”

William Eggleston’s Los Alamos
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark
March 19 – June 6, 2004

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
August 21, 2004 – January 4, 2005

Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
February 6 – May 15, 2005
Shep Steiner

If the high level of public discourse that has emerged around contemporary photography is a contributing factor to the reappraisal and renewed interest in the work of William Eggleston, it also seems to be one of the main obstacles to the reception of this artist’s work. Los Alamos, a suite of more than 80 color photographs made between 1966 and 1974, centered on the infamous town in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was invented, is a case in point. Certainly one is justified in pausing in front of any one of these photographs and contemplating their aesthetic value, but it is worth keeping in mind Hilton Kramer’s blunt response to the works and to one critic’s praise of them: “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.”1 How Eggleston’s works can verge on the “banal” and “boring,” or more importantly, how such determinations contribute to a durational effect at the same time as one can confidently describe individ- ual photographs as paradigmatic moments of aesthetic experience is a crucial problem — perhaps the central problem — to be asked of Los Alamos.

Among the interpretative biases that lead one away from tackling this central tension in Eggleston’s practice are, firstly, the prominence typically allotted the singular photograph, and secondly, the art-world’s current preoccupation with documentary photography. Both conspire to draw attention away from a fictive continuity or lyricism in Eggleston’s work. We can add to these two issues the important lessons forwarded by John Szarkowski in his book William Eggleston’s Guide. Szarkowski reminds us of the importance of balancing Eggleston’s own notion of “photographing democratically”— i.e., taking pictures of virtually anything without a discretionary principle or a favored motif in hand — with his practice of editing and cropping on the fly, through the viewfinder as it were. He also discusses how this relates to “the nominal subjects of his pictures” and finally how Eggleston’s pivotal use of color as a formal resource of the medium ties all of this together.2 In addition, the curator and organizer of the present exhibition direct our attention to Eggleston’s complex darkroom technique. We are to be mindful of Eggleston’s use of the so-called dye-transfer technique, a system of color printing developed for advertising photogra- phy. Didactic panels in the exhibition space tell us that the technique makes it possible to separate the three primary colors (yellow, magenta and cyan), work them independently, and transfer them directly on to paper, there- by allowing one to emphasize or manipulate particular details in any one picture and/or establish color harmonies across a spectrum of pictures.3 In Los Alamos, Coca-ColaTM red is constantly attracting one’s attention.

Over and above these intrinsic questions of form, composition, and the stopping power of any one photograph, one glimpses the trace of another order of worry hinging on narrative flow. Giving oneself over to this lyric effect is fundamentally at odds with aesthetic judgment. It is the basis of Kramer’s conservative and negative reaction to the work, as well as the main reason why Szarkowsky and others ground their positive assessment in issues of color, form, and darkroom technique. Walter Hopps is perhaps the earliest and best example of a curator and critic who resists these high-minded approaches to Eggleston’s practice and instead welcomes the real ease of movement between pictures. Undoubtedly Hopps — who accompanied Eggleston along with Dennis Hopper on a number of his photo shoots in the Deep South that would culminate in Los Alamos — recognized the artist’s intention of attempting to conjure up to memory the everyday experience of aimlessly drifting through the place.

In one particularly beautiful passage, one finds oneself looking down and ready to drink from an old rusty water fountain with the drainpipe missing. This pours out into the next photo as stains on a parking lot that look like spilled radiator fluid. In turn, this becomes a shot of a derelict gas station in a hard rain. Now it’s really pouring! The car’s broken-down … everything’s soaked … better get inside where it’s dry. Inside is a warm wooden floor that will track water, a welcom- ing old chair, and a Coca-ColaTM cooler. With no one around there’s a chance to snoop about, but the color of the cooler carries one over to a bare-chested field worker in front of a corn field — he seems friendly enough — and just beside him a red garden shed. Still moving from left to right is a Delta Kream Cola sign. Some brake lights left on. Looking up, the bold red and white type of a hamburger joint, then down, a guy eating a hamburger. Looks as if he’s taken too big a bite. His ears are red. His neck muscles are tensed. He’s trying to swallow it down whole. He may choke. Best to look away, either back the way one came for a drink to wash it down, or better, to a road sign on the outskirts of town. On second thought, better hurry on to the next picture, it’s not good hitchhiking with a storm coming.

Producing such impressive fluidity between pictures does not come easily. It has all the effortlessness of a seriously intense practice of culling down, editing, selecting and organizing pictures from what must be a huge archive. On top of this are the acute problems of the positioning and broad sequencing of five wall-length narrative sections of ten to fifteen pictures each. Nor is the narrative thread I have just traced the only way to negotiate this particular passage. The connections and transitions are slippery and loose at best. Moreover, the echoes or narrative strands that one follows are not always showcased front and center. Sometimes significance pops up to one side, is translated from a visual language into textual metaphors, and as often as not is bound up in hazard avoidance, subliminal suggestions, or uncomfortable encounters. Walking around the corner of a building while looking up at the soffits is dangerous. Best look where you’re going! As risky is wandering into the bad part of town. Don’t dawdle here! Keep moving. A picture of a boy holding a snake in front of a long flat sign reads “Gila Monster — Liz…” I found myself moving across the yellow type with speed and before I knew it I had slid off the surface entirely and was looking at the next shot. There is the portrait of the old sour- puss at the shopping centre. A playground sign that blocks one’s entrance to a plunging perspective. And in an often-reproduced photograph from the same vicinity one finds oneself inhabiting a crouched or kneeling position too close to a young girl’s leg, so close one can almost feel it, not to mention the tattoo on the back of her hand.

Along with these works, which seem to encourage a movement that is more akin to deflection than a clean perspectival entrance or engagement with a central figure, narrative flow works through synaesthesia (where a car tire turns into a shot of pea gravel that you can hear on a driveway), metonymy (where hunger can become thirst, and the color red can lend paradigmatic status to a lonely CokeTM can), synecdoche (when a tire sign on top of a building is substituted for a picture of a car), and a host of other tropes. One picture can move in the space of three to affirm its exact opposite. Indeed the persuasiveness of looking up in one picture can be satisfied with a shot right next to it that simply looks down. In one particularly instructive passage of seven images whose subject matter moves from the picture of a round light bulb to a tire sign, to the back tail lights of a car, past three more cars (two of which are perhaps the same car) and eventually to an old garage, one moves from circular forms to rectangular ones, crisp colors to muddied ones, over-saturated reds, whites, and blues, to a blending of orangey red and brick hues. But one also moves from a blue sky to a turquoise car, across to manipulated browns and greens of the same car, and through a shadowy section that reads like a purposeful error in darkroom printing. These overexposed flashes recall earlier contrasts and lead one on to the effects of harsh sunlight, deep shadows and wet mud.

 

This said, for all intents and purposes there are two Egglestons. The first Eggleston is a seasoned photographer and darkroom technician who makes singular photographs. The second Eggleston is an engineer of the lyric, someone with an eye for narrative sequence, movement between pictures, and the map- ping out of broad continuities. The work of the latter begins after the work of the former is completed. No doubt, there are some mutually inclusive tasks, but for the most part the work of each is at cross-purposes; it is subject to the constant reappraisal and heightened scrutiny that such dialogue affords and undoubtedly occurs all through the creative process. If one were to try and recoup the texture of hesitations that go into the positioning of any one photograph in any one passage, Eggleston’s question to himself would be something along the lines of, “How might a photograph be crystallized, enhanced, realized from scratch, but also ironed out, or deflated to serve as a placeholder within a differential system of photographs?”

Simply put, the temptation not to give each photograph its due and instead move through the suite as a system of incredibly complex and multilayered relays and substi- tutions is one of two potentialities that Eggleston plumbs within the language of photography. For in effect, Los Alamos is neither dictated by looking at a periodic or discrete series of photographic moments, nor is it ruled by a straightforward activity of reading in which one is carried naturally and inexorably from one image to the next. Rather, the dynamic is complicated by an intricate pattern of reading and rereading, a movement of skipping or looking forward to new pictures and scanning backward that allows one to pick up on narrative links which at first glance may have gone unnoticed, to enrich the connections of a particular passage that may seem attenuated, or to locate a particular picture that might come off as isolated. What is crucial to recognize is that this process is in a mutually exclusive  relationship to looking at particular pictures, picking out significant themes, or singling out one photograph over another as the perfect crystallization of a narrative passage. In Los Alamos meaning and sense creep up on one from the side: what Paul de Man calls “dozing metaphors” are continually being woken up by near cousins, next of kin and the like – a host of contingent relations that live next door and who are forever meddling in others’ affairs. It’s not exactly the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s that are going at it, but rather the Metaphors and Metonymies! What one glimpses in Eggleston’s work is a devaluing of the singular photograph that in turn is revalued or reinvigorated through other means. For in spite of having all the characteristics of a long, stuttering run-on sentence, Los Alamos manages to concentrate its energies through a multitude of ways and means to produce strangely significant and somehow compelling moments of visual experience. To my mind the best example is the airplane picture of a glass of rum and coke with a swizzle stick that stops one cold. The jump to and from it is far more radical than what one sees in other transitions. With a tinge of melancholy that might equally be read as the self-satisfaction of having chosen such and such a rum or the “right” airline, it is a deliberate moment that should be taken as a reminder that Eggleston’s practice spans the spectrum of possible positions between the tableau and street level documentary photography. Moreover, that the former extreme is shot through with the contingencies of the latter by virtue of the interference played by positionality within a series.

A sensitivity to the photographic practice at hand demands that syntactical questions intrinsic to individual pictures be radically opened up and rethought in order to address the way in which Eggleston stages the metaphoric — i.e., aesthetic — potentiality of any one picture, in terms of the syntactical relations that that one picture metonymically gathers up or mobilizes from pictures next to it or, for that matter, from sequences or groupings of pictures that frame it on either side.4

 

All in all, one comes away with a picture of Los Alamos that is manifold, hard to grasp, half-felt, variously narrated, remembered, experienced, accurately recorded, thematically organized and also carefully reflected upon. One lives within these photographs as much as between them; imagines the transitions from one moment to the next to be everyday negotiations, and assumes the eighty or so little memories of this place to be one’s own. But past and present are so deeply intermingled here that it is impossible to draw any hard and fast conclusions. What seems like a passive movement between works can have the effect of a far more active process of knitting and weaving odds and ends together for the semblance of a durational experience in the present. Conversely, the shadow line that cuts an ice cream menu in two and gives it all the presence of a hot afternoon can as quickly turn into a memory of how life once was and how that has all changed, merely by noting the strong horizontals of the picture beside it. It is in the very subtle fabric of recouping a past or of bringing memories to life, as well as recognizing such aesthetic moments to be rhetorically animated through linguistic means, that one comes closest to the artistic questions that drive this practice. In a sense, Eggleston walks the viewer through these difficult editorial decisions every time he or she turns this photographic language into the semblance of experience, and conversely, when that same viewer feels out the way in which syntactical questions that hinge on selection and positioning underwrite semantic effects.

If there is one question that every viewer will ask of Eggleston’s work it will be why Los Alamos and not somewhere else, when so many of one’s expectations of this place remain unfulfilled. Undoubtedly this is a question that leads one back to the deepest hopes of Eggleston’s notion of “democratic photography.” It is no less a question of how Los Alamos as subject matter relates alternately micro-textual and global levels to the relationship between metaphor and metonymy. An answer hinges on the irrecon- cilable experience of the aesthetic on one hand, and that of its narration on the other. More specifically, it lies in the complementary relationship that exists between a picture of Los Alamos and the variable and far-ranging dispersions to which the place, the idea, and the historical moment is subjected.

 

Shep Steiner is an art critic and art historian currently writing a book on the painting of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and the art criticism of Clement Greenberg. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches a course on the ethics of criticism at the Malmö Art Academy, Sweden.5

 

Footnotes:

1. This was Hilton Kramer’s response to the work and John Szarkowski’s description of it in a New York Times review from the 1970s. Quoted in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art press release, 3 March, 2004.

2. John Szarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide, New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002.

3. Thomas Weski and Walter Hopps, William Eggleston, Los Alamos, Zurich: Scalo Verlag, 2003.

4. My use of metaphor as interchangeable with a notion of the aesthetic and in a complementary relation to metonymy is borrowed from Paul de Man’s reading of Proust. In de Man’s view the aesthetic is a metaphoric construction. Thus of the famous reading scene near the beginning of Swan’s Way he writes: “The passage is about the aesthetic superiority of metaphor over metonymy, but this aesthetic claim is made by means of categories that are the ontological ground of the metaphysical system that allows for the aesthetic to come into being as a category.” (Paul de Man, “Reading Proust,” Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, p. 14). Here de Man’s use of metonymy is worth commenting on. It is not of that species defined through contiguous association in a viewer as is flagged earlier in this essay. Rather, metonymy in its syntactical form is a question of spatial proximity or nearness within the differential system of the text. In grounding metaphor thusly, the viewer uses metonymy to build metaphors, but is blinded to the groundwork metonymy is doing. Conversely, if one looks for metonymic relations across a sequence of pictures one will find that it is underwritten by metaphoric moments.

5. Walter Hopps offers the following in his preface to the exhibition catalog: “When driving through New Mexico in 1973, William Eggleston stopped at Los Alamos, the forested site of the atomic bomb’s clandestine development. He chose Los Alamos as the title for a sprawling body of work then nearing completion: approxi- mately twenty-two hundred images photographed between 1966 and 1974. …The photographs that make up this selection from Los Alamos begin at the beginning, with the first color photograph Eggleston made, of a grocery clerk pushing a shopping cart; include the center of his world—Memphis and the Mississippi Delta; trace his travels west from New Orleans to Las Vegas and southern California; and end on the Santa Monica Pier.” (Los Alamos, William Eggleston, Scalo Publishers, 2003).

 

Footnotes

  1. This was Hilton Kramer’s response to the work and John Szarkowski’s description of it in a New York Times review from the 1970s. Quoted in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art press release, 3 March, 2004.
  2. John Szarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide, New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002.
  3. Thomas Weski and Walter Hopps, William Eggleston, Los Alamos, Zurich: Scalo Verlag, 2003.
  4. My use of metaphor as interchangeable with a notion of the aesthetic and in a complementary relation to metonymy is borrowed from Paul de Man’s reading of Proust. In de Man’s view the aesthetic is a metaphoric construction. Thus of the famous reading scene near the beginning of Swan’s Way he writes: “The passage is about the aesthetic superiority of metaphor over metonymy, but this aesthetic claim is made by means of categories that are the ontological ground of the metaphysical system that allows for the aesthetic to come into being as a category.” (Paul de Man, “Reading Proust,” Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, p. 14). Here de Man’s use of metonymy is worth commenting on. It is not of that species defined through contiguous association in a viewer as is flagged earlier in this essay. Rather, metonymy in its syntactical form is a question of spatial proximity or nearness within the differential system of the text. In grounding metaphor thusly, the viewer uses metonymy to build metaphors, but is blinded to the groundwork metonymy is doing. Conversely, if one looks for metonymic relations across a sequence of pictures one will find that it is underwritten by metaphoric moments.
  5. Walter Hopps offers the following in his preface to the exhibition catalog: “When driving through New Mexico in 1973, William Eggleston stopped at Los Alamos, the forested site of the atomic bomb’s clandestine development. He chose Los Alamos as the title for a sprawling body of work then nearing completion: approxi- mately twenty-two hundred images photographed between 1966 and 1974. …The photographs that make up this selection from Los Alamos begin at the beginning, with the first color photograph Eggleston made, of a grocery clerk pushing a shopping cart; include the center of his world—Memphis and the Mississippi Delta; trace his travels west from New Orleans to Las Vegas and southern California; and end on the Santa Monica Pier.” (Los Alamos, William Eggleston, Scalo Publishers, 2003).