William Eggleston Retrospective Evokes the South

Walking through the William Eggleston photography retrospective currently on display at the Whitney Museum in New York City, I felt right at home. This was due in part to my having seen the photographs displayed there many times. I first discovered Eggleston's work in his 1989 collection, "The Democratic Forest," and my first reaction, like my first reaction to the work of William Faulkner when I was a teenager, was, "Yes, this man has gotten it exactly right: this is my backyard, this is the world I live in." With regard to Eggleston, any Southerner with eyes would surely agree. They might not agree that the photographs are art or, in many cases, even attractive. But the tricycles, telephone poles, filling stations, litter-clotted curbsides, dining-room tables, cotton fields and the thousands of other images that Eggleston has captured with such clarity over the years, all of these material things would move anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line to say, "I recognize all that." Many of them would be moved to say more. Again, it has nothing to do with art, although we're getting closer. It's more a matter of temperament, more about a way of seeing the world. Eggleston's photographs looked familiar to me the first time I saw them because that's the way I see the world.

You do not have to be Southern to love Eggleston's work, any more than you need to be Japanese to love "The Tale of Genji" or French to love "Madame Bovary." But I'm willing to wager that the Japanese get Lady Murasaki, or the French Flaubert, in ways I never will. I think place and origin color the way we appreciate artists in ways we don't begin to understand and certainly in ways that we don't countenance. Of course everyone pays lip service to the importance of place in art and music and literature. What would Faulkner have been without what he called his "little postage stamp of soil" there in Mississippi? Could Tolstoy have thrived outside Russia? But after that, we tend to put place at the bottom of the artistic totem pole. A writer or a painter or a composer is great, we say, to the degree that he or she transcends the local and approaches the universal. Wandering through the Whitney the other day, staring at those Eggleston photographs, I began to wonder for the first time in my life if that formulation wasn't wrong—or at least overlooking a lot.

Let me back up, at least as far as that first encounter with "The Democratic Forest," to which Eudora Welty supplied the introduction and in which she declared, "All the photographs [in this book] have place as their subject." When I read that quote, I was inclined to agree immediately, even though a good number of the images included were taken thousands of miles away from the South, in England, Germany and elsewhere, and many others were taken in Sunbelt city centers, such as Atlanta, that look about as characterless as a places can look. But the more I learned about Eggleston, the more I became convinced that while he might have been grateful to someone as august as Miss Welty for her words, that quote in particular must have made him squirm. He has always rejected the tag of regional artist. In 2000, he said, "I don't and never have considered myself a Southerner. I was labeled so simply because I'm from here, and I know people here and I know this place. But I don't feel any kinship with Southern artists at all."

Make no mistake, Eggleston is not, by any conceivable twist of the definition, a good old boy. He was born to wealth, the scion of a family that owned a cotton plantation in Mississippi, and when young, he and his future bride were often observed piloting their matching baby-blue Cadillacs through the Delta. By reputation a rake and certainly a dandy—according to his friend the author Stanley Booth, Eggleston has never owned a pair of jeans or done a push-up—he is also an autodidact of no mean accomplishment: a gifted self-taught pianist and composer, he is nerd enough to take apart a television set and put it together again in working order, and he designs and builds his own stereo speakers. When, in 1967, at the age of 29, he appeared on the doorstep of the Museum of Modern Art with a boxful of prints, photography curator John Szarkowski, not an easy man to impress, said he'd never seen anything like those pictures.

Many of the pictures in the Whitney show have Southern settings or subjects: unpaved back roads, hounds, tumble-down shacks, Graceland interiors, fallow cotton fields stretching off to infinity, dining-room tables laden with home cooking (staring at these table settings, of luridly colored ham, greens and cornbread, all of it shot as though one were in some kind of comestible hell, you understand that this is a man who plainly despises food). But while the subject matter is recognizably Southern, the opinions and identity of the photographer are much more obscure. He could be a Martian or, judging from the point of view—many of the shots are taken from ground level, most famously the photo of shoes under the bed—a child. At every turn, one finds evidence to support Eggleston's most famous artistic declaration: "I am at war with the obvious."

Yet this is what I find most Southern about these images. To me, they exemplify what Faulkner insisted was the crux of all great art: the human heart in conflict with itself. At every turn, they reject clichés—clichés of thought and clichéd ways of seeing. They abjure any sentimentality, any romance with the past, any embrace of the Lost Cause (the one image of a Confederate flag shows it as a neon sign against an inky night sky). There is nothing pretty about these pictures, nothing safe. Riding the other end of this seesaw is Eggleston's infatuation with the look of things, things that most people ignore or turn away from in disgust. He excludes nothing. There is no room for phony refinement, or snobbishness or camp. He is the Botticelli of the beehive hairdo, the Degas of diners. Dragging your eye to the ketchup bottle sitting on the ledge outside the Dairy Queen, a bottle of soda pop sitting on a car hood, a cloud, an oven interior, he forces you to see beauty where you hadn't thought to look. He quickens your awareness of the world around you.

Through it all, making it all work, is the tension of contradiction. You get the feeling that part of Eggleston wants to flee the scene, and another part can't bear to avert his eyes for a single second. This is the part of Eggleston's art that I find the most Southern, or that as a Southerner I identify with most strongly. For both of us, the South is the place where we feel the least not at home. This is, I know, a most personal reaction, but one that I refuse to discount—if you can't take art personally, then what's the point? More than anyone, Eggleston has taught me how to look at my own backyard, or the backyard I hail from. My appreciation of his art may be in large part an accident of birth. But I can't tell you how lucky that accident makes me feel.