Untitled, (Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973) by William Eggleston
William Eggleston returned from Paris feeling frustrated. He’d travelled there to follow in the footsteps of his idol, the French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson. Eggleston sought the emotion and humanity that Bresson had so decisively captured, but instead found a city so thoroughly documented by the master that it was impossible for him to see anything fresh.
Back in America, Eggleston lamented to a friend that he was at a loss for interesting subjects. Eggleston felt uninspired by their banal and ugly surroundings — there was nothing extraordinary for him to shoot. His friend stopped him and said, ‘Shoot the ugly stuff’.
The results of Eggleston’s decision to shoot the ugly stuff resulted in a body of work that transformed our understanding of what art photography could look like. Rather than dramatic vistas sculpted in black and white or simple still-lifes in tasteful greys, he showed us a vision of daily life in the American South in colour — a bare light bulb on a blood red ceiling, peach stones and neon signs on a corrugated roof, a child’s tricycle, a freezer choked with ice.
His decision to shoot in colour, to show life as the masses see it, unobstructed by the artistic abstraction of black and white, was revolutionary. Colour was crass — good for family snapshots and garish ad campaigns but not fine art. His debut show at MoMa was reviled and adored in equal measure. Art critic Hilton Kramer described it as, ‘Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.’ Many dismissed his work as ‘mere snapshots’ for its informal framing and offhand feel. They missed that he was composing with colour as much as with form. Also, this seemingly careless style of composition lends the pictures a sense of authenticity that they would lack given a more mannered approach. The dismissal of Eggleston’s images as snapshots is close to the perennial rebuke of contemporary art — ‘a child could have done that’ — frequently heard in galleries from a recalcitrant boyfriend or older man, as he fights discomfort with wit, rather than engaging openly with things that he may not understand or appreciate (yet).
For the people that got Eggleston’s pictures, it was his unpretentious and direct approach that made them so appealing. Both sides were correct about what made him unique — his elevation of the banal — but for one group this was cause for inspiration and for the other, excommunication. The recognition that attention and vision are more important than subject matter was freeing — if you have a skilled eye, the ‘rules’ of photography are guides not laws. This is a licence to pick up your camera and walk out the door in search of the masterpieces that might await you around the corner. Just because you are popping out for milk and loo roll, doesn’t mean that you can’t pick up something for the portfolio along the way…
A lot of the photographers I admire followed a similar trajectory, starting within the documentary tradition (often in black and white) and then evolving towards a freer, more intuitive style — less focussed on the exotic or dramatic, but instead on the simple and specific. I’m thinking of Paul Graham, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin or younger photographers like Irina Rozovsky or Rinko Kawauchi (both of whom are so skilled at making any old crap look beautiful that it’s borderline cheating). Collectively their work documents roads and parks, malls and sprawl, diners, junk food, advertising hoardings, friends, family, neighbours, strangers. The pictures depict the local and the personal, but because they are so acutely observed, their resonance is universal. We recognise ourselves and our lives within the peculiarities of another’s experience.
I find this approach to picture-making inspiring - what is more precious and ephemeral than our daily experience? We’re immersed in it and yet we barely see it. Photography is a lens with which to focus attention on your lived experience, as well as a way to preserve, understand and perhaps share it. And if Paul Graham can make a body of work about the A1 motorway and Jamie Hawkeworth’s career-launching project centres on Preston Bus Station, what excuse do the rest of us have?!
‘I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important.’
William Eggleston’s Guide
The book that started it all. This is that catalogue that was released in conjunction with Eggleston’s MoMa show and has likely influenced my photography more than any other photobook (alongside Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight and Robert Frank’s The Americans). Unlike most other pivotal photography books this one is both affordable and still in print…
A Shimmer of Possibility by Paul Graham
An epoch defining set of linked photobooks that rejects Cartier Bresson’s concept of the decisive moment and instead seeks to tie context together with subject by documenting ephemeral and otherwise unremarkable human mini-stories — a woman eats at a bus stop, a man mowing grass in the rain, people crossing the road or waiting on the corner. In this project Graham uses his camera to depict the experience of time, rather than freezing it.
American Surfaces by Stephen Shore
On a road trip through the United States in 1972 Shore documented the food he ate, the people he met and the places he stayed or passed through using a tiny Rollei 35 camera (often with a harsh on camera flash for interior images). Compared to his later treatment of similar subjects with a large format camera, a rigorous compositional approach and a painterly palette (in Uncommon Places), this series feels immediate and unpretentious. Each image doesn’t need to stand alone as monument to Shore’s artistic skills, but instead acts as a puzzle piece, which when snapped together with the other photographs, forms a picture of the journey as a whole. Rather than ‘look at me’, the images say ‘hey, look at this’.
Live in Sarajevo by Håkon Kornstad
Rich and mellow saxophone jazz — until about halfway through, when Kornstad reveals that he is also a trained opera singer and unleashes some vocal heroics.
Bird Ambience — Masayoshi Fujita
I’ve had this sparse and meditative single on repeat for the last two weeks — treated percussion, enveloping synths, whispered vocal samples. It feels minimal and textural, but still romantic. Incredible.
Wait but Why — Mailbag 2
An epically long Q&A session with one of the smartest and funniest writers on the internet. Questions include: - Are we bigger than we are small, or smaller than we are big? - If you were an omnipotent god for 24 hours, what would you do? - Would you rather be 11 feet tall or nine inches tall? - What conspiracy theory do you think is most probably true?
Paul Graham in Conversation with Aaron Schuman
Paul Graham on the evolution of his photography, the US vs UK photography scene in the 90s, curating shows vs laying out books, teaching, and the future of photography (looking forward from 2010)
Write Faster by Sasha Chapin
A short and helpful essay about outrunning your inner censor by writing at top speed. I want to apply this approach to the next few issues. I would love to get a terrible first draft down faster, then spend the bulk of my writing time editing and refining. Currently I fiddle with each sentence as I go, which makes the entire process needlessly arduous and can lead to wooden results…
Sound of Metal
One of the best films I have seen this year — tender and brutal. Riz Ahmed is incredible — ferocious physicality and a simple and open performance — you see his inner turmoil play out across his face while you watch life as he knows it fall apart. The cinematography is elegant, intimate and beautiful.
Alec Soth on Eggleston’s Democratic Forest
Full disclosure: I haven’t watched this yet, but it’s supposed to be great. A rambling, discursive walk through one of Eggleston’s most important books by one of my favourite contemporary photographers. Soth is thoughtful and self-aware regarding photography’s complex relationship with reality and photographers’s relationships with and responsibilities to their subjects.
‘The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree… They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!’
—Eudora Welty on Eggleston’s pictures