William Eggleston Portraits is a significant show for Melbourne photographers, an opportunity to see one of the key postwar US photographers. It comes from London’s National Portrait Gallery where it had a somewhat different form. At least in Melbourne it’s free.
Eggleston holds an ongoing influence for subsequent generations of photographers and artists. He is best known for his pioneering use of colour and images of suburban life in the Southern United States.
This exhibition is the first comprehensive museum exhibition devoted to Eggleston’s remarkable portraits. These works capture family, friends, casual acquaintances and strangers in a series of eloquent, poetic character studies and collectively form a social portrait of a time, place and way of life. (NGV)
There is one remarkable photograph that stands out for me, an “essay” photograph, not just about the subject-matter but about photography itself. Like a Winogrand, it says something about the way a camera records the reality in front of it. On one level, it is a portrait of a handsome woman; on another it is a study in opposites; and on another it is a comment on race relations.
The woman is a strong and serious African American of the kind we are familiar with from black music of the 1960s (eg The Supremes) or photos of Civil Rights issues. She is neatly dressed in orange and brown colours that match her skin. Take her out of the picture and she’s still an impressive figure.
The two strangers pass each other in the street. One walks toward the camera, the other away from the camera. One is female, the other is male. One is young, the other is old. One is black, the other is white. One is dressed in colours, the other in black & white.
The man has lowered his black cardigan to reveal his white shirt which matches his skin colour. It makes a black/white shape, a signal to the viewer about the symbolic content of the photograph which inevitably is about race. Inevitably? Eggleston is a Southerner and some of his photographs note race relations in the South.
The photograph was made in the 1960s at the height of civil rights ferment. The man is ageing, his black and white clothes appear untidy and he’s leaving the space of the picture. The woman is young and well-dressed and is moving frontally into the foreground space. She looks straight into the camera. As I say, it’s an essay photograph.
Unlike a painting of the same subject-matter, none of this is planned or staged. It’s a grab shot, probably made on instinct at the spur of the moment. All of the above observations are after the fact, interpretations of something that does not intrinsically contain those ideas. That is the the thing with photography. As Winogrand, the master of the essay photograph, famously said, “I take photographs to see what things look like photographed.”