William Eggleston once boldly stated that he was “at war with the obvious”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show At War with the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston presents 36 breathtaking dye transfer prints, recently donated to the museum, through a Purchase by, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, Rogers Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, Elizabeth S. & Robert J. Fisher Gift, and the Eggleston Artistic Trust, highlighting not only Eggleston’s groundbreaking mastery of color photography, but also his ability to capture the complexities of the American South through snapshots of the seemingly “ordinary” and “mundane”.
The photographs, taken in the 1970′s are very telling of a specific place and time; the American South amidst a time of questioning and change. A direct influence of Walker Evans, Eggleston’s play with billboards and signs, such as his famous “Peaches” photograph (Untitled, 1971) and “Wonder Bread” (Untitled, 1970) not only comment on American industry and consumerism, but become metaphors for the decaying American dream. Eggleston simultaneously transforms the people he photographs into signs themselves, as their presence in the photograph is more symbolic than individualized, becoming archetypes for Southern segregation and the immense disconnect between individual and environment. Eggleston’s comments on racism, while never “obvious”, act as an eerie reminder of what existed and still exists in this world. His photograph of a hanging jacket, reminiscent of today’s artist David Hammons’ work, could be interpreted as a symbol of the lynching that occurred prominently in the American South and the ghostly presence that still remains. This photograph is an ideal example of how Eggleston’s work would not have the same power if it were in black and white. The red, white, and blue, of the jacket, directly links its significance not only to racial injustice, but to America herself, the horror that has been encoded in our country’s long history.
I wonder if some of these messages or connections between photographs are made more prominent by the curatorial choices. While the photographs certainly flowed well aesthetically, I wonder if some of the pairings of photographs made Eggleston’s critiques too “obvious”, or provoked viewers to make associations that Eggleston never intended to make.An example of this is the placement of Eggleston’s Wonderbread photograph (Untitled, 1970) next to the photograph of an African American young girl standing amongst a Southern field (Untitled Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi, 1970). The two works next to each other start a dialogue about American industry and labor and force the viewer to see the Wonderbread sign and young girl under a similar lens. a
Nonetheless, the brilliance of Eggleston’s message is that it lays not beneath the surface, but on the surface, asking the viewer to take a closer look and constantly question the mundane. Eggleston’s brilliant colors, extenuated by the dye transfer process, and reminiscent of the “Mississippi sun”, vivify Eggleston’s commentary so that the colors themselves become characters of his story. The colors speak and argue with each other. The green of the dress that a woman wears in Eggleston’s portrait (Untitled Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi, 1970) of her transforms her into a part of the field itself; she becomes a blade of grass against the Southern landscape. It is clear that Eggleston’s photographs are not just photographs taken in color, but photographs celebrating and dependent on the natural colors of the world. Eggleston’s colors embody far more than aesthetic appeal; they are the Southern soul that lingers in each and every photograph of the show. Perhaps it is in Eggleston’s color that we are left with some sort of hope or promise for the future; that despite the failing American dream, with its diminishing industry and prominent social inequalities, the Mississippi sun will rise again.
Words: Gracie Brahimy © 2013 Photos William Eggleston
The show will be open until July 28th, 2013 and is certainly something not to be missed.
Review of At War with the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston February 26- July 28, 2013