William Eggleston: Photographer is a model for biographical artist documentaries. At a petite 26 minutes, it covers as much ground as you’d expect from a feature-length biopic, minus the fat. Since Eggleston’s style, in photography and personal manner, is terse, straightforward and unpretentious, the brevity makes perfect sense.
Inspired by Heni Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston set out to capture everyday life with a painter’s eye for composition and, in his most celebrated works, color. Filmmaker Reiner Holzemer follows Eggleston around in the present, aping his compositional style at times as he frames shots in what looks like a ghost town. Eggleston’s way of arranging pictorial elements in a purely formal way yielded sometimes mystifyingly powerful results. His most celebrated photographs of people don’t privilege their eyes, their social status or their emotional life over their value as objects in the tableaux. The only stars in his work are shapes and colors. As the film illustrates in vibrant slideshow stills, sometimes a hair bun that fans out like a sunflower or a feminine calf muscle that might as well be exquisitely designed furniture evoke more than would any traditional depiction of human drama or personality. Eggleston tells us professional photjournalism bored him in his early years. In that light, Cartier-Bresson’s black-and-white Paris street photography was a revelation. Here was documentary spontanaeity coupled with an artist’s compositional rigor.
Eggleston added to Cartier-Bresson’s method of finding the order in chaos his own gift for turning colors into characters in his enigmatic dramas. Red, in particular, is a superstar of his repertory. Little splashes of it, whether on a dilapidated shingle or a strip of fabric, give many of his images an arresting zing. Eggleston explains how he pioneered adapting the dye transfer printing process, which was traditionally reserved for glossy magazine advertisements, for art photography. It gives the pictures the kind of saturation normally associated with color slides.
One reason William Eggleston: Photographer is so slim is the scarcity of personal anecdotes. We get the basic outline of his personal life but only glimpses of his upbringing on a wealthy Mississippi plantation.The glimpses are enough. Since Eggelston’s own family members were as important as subjects as the strangers who sometimes appeared in his desolate streetscapes, a handful of carefully chosen pictures here speak a thousand words about the strange tensions and resonances in his world. A photo of his father and a black servant say about as much as can be said about the South that Eggleston grew up in. Or consider the picture of a frail elderly relative framed by a doorway, with the darkened room behind her threatening to swallow her up and the cool pale green of the room she’s facing threatening to knock our eyes out. Eggleston’s family pictures tell us he comes from a world with too much history, too many ghosts, for mere words.
Finally, Eggleston himself mimics his work, choosing his words as carefully and patiently as he chooses his shots. In one breath he is amused by the way admirers over-analyze his work, weighing it down with meanings and associations (he famously rejects titling individual pictures); in another, he shrugs off the notion that the bad reviews his breakthrough MoMA show got in 1976: “[The critics] just didn’t know what they were looking at. And that was their job.”
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist who writes for Capital New York, Big Media Vandalism and Slant/The House Next Door.
Acknowledgments: Images in this entry were found from the following online sources: 01\\Blog, Big Daddy Seashell, Patterns of Light n’ Dark, The Larkey Experiments, and Art Scene. Images subject to copyright.