The influence of American photographer William Eggleston is all-pervasive: from the realist fashion photography of Juergen Teller to the downbeat films of Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine, Eggleston’s eye for the detail and detritus of modern America has become emblematic of a certain trend in the visual arts that focuses on what classical photography would leave out of the frame, that is, the ‘ugly’ and seemingly trivial.
In a way it is strange that photography took so long to turn its attention on the details of life, or realia,
when literature had been doing that since the 19th century. That may be because until Eggleston came into the art world fray, colour photography, without which photographic realism is much more difficult to achieve, was seen as the technique of amateurs. His show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the mid-seventies was the second time the institution hung colour photo prints on its walls. Controversy ensued and critics panned the show as banal and boring.
Nowadays Eggleston is hot property and his name is securely engraved in the pantheon of modern art, hence this mini-season dedicated to him at the ICA in London. Michael Almereyda’s visual essay on the artist, William Eggleston in the Real World, does a fine job in creating a vivid, candid portrait of the man, who comes across as a sweet poet with a love of music and an almost child-like enchantment with the world. His idiosyncratic personality is miles away from the often pretentious art world that idolizes him. Eggleston, who hails from Memphis and still lives there, is more like a character in a Korine movie; is basso, growling voice adding makes his quirky persona even more endearing. In short, he’s a picture of authenticity and this revealing film portrait adds an extra layer of verity to his work.
Spanning roughly over four years, the film follows Eggleston on one of his photo sprees and then takes us to his home, friends and a lecture at an unspecified venue. The footage is interspersed with Eggleston’s art photographs and family memorabilia. The style of the film is rough, the camera is as unstable as in a home video, but this visual approach fits perfectly the subject because anything too polished would have resulted in something incongruous. Almereyda succeeded in putting together an unobtrusive documentary that gets as close to the truth as possible. In this age of fakes, Eggleston is a fresh sight of genuineness and humility.
‘William Eggleston in the Real World’ plays at the ICA from 18 Nov to 1 Dec.