The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition of William Eggleston’s groundbreaking five-volume portfolio of 75 dye-transfer prints titled Los Alamos was the first time the complete work has been shown in New York City. What makes that especially remarkable is that this body of work was Eggleston’s first in color, meticulously edited from a number of cross-country photography trips he made with curator Walter Hopps and fellow photographer and actor/director Dennis Hopper between 1965 and 1974. This early work was completed even before Eggleston’s first major exhibition was organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976; the cover of that exhibition catalog was one of Eggleston’s best-known photographs, a low-level angle of a child’s tricycle on a concrete suburban driveway.
On a wall outside the Met’s exhibition, in galleries 691-693, was a small group of Eggleston’s concurrent black-and-white work. There was no catalog for Los Alamos, but a book of that title, previously published by Scalo and edited by Thomas Weski, contains not only the 75 images of the portfolio and exhibition but also an additional seven images. I’ve no idea which seven images in the book were not included in the Met show; in any event, they are displayed in a different order on the gallery walls than in the room. The image that is generally referred to as Eggleston’s first color photograph was, in fact, also the first one inside the Met gallery: a young supermarket grocery clerk pushing a rank of shopping carts toward the store entrance in late-afternoon light.
Such a close single portrait is unusual in Eggleston’s entire body of work. Even in his rare human portraits, the subject is usually shot in profile and seemingly unaware of the camera’s presence. Many of his images even suggest that a person has just left the frame: open car doors, a drinking fountain, a bouquet of flowers idly left on the roof of a car, an open soft-drink bottle sitting on a car hood. Window clothing displays, signage showing human figures, lawn figurines, or just a hand stirring a cocktail glass resting on an airline tray table all suggest the immanent presence of a person.
It is this hovering human presence that gives Eggleston’s images such an uncanny feeling. In addition, almost all of his photographs bear no title and offer no details about where they were made, inspiring the viewer to search the frame for information. (The Met exhibition did list the city or state where the image was made; this information is not in the Scalo book.)
In the book’s very brief introduction, Hopps reveals that most of the photographs were made in Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. (The last photograph is a portrait of three females standing behind the hood of their car, a chain-link fence, the beach and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Predictably, they are in profile, looking away from the water.)
Hopps begins his introduction this way:
While driving through New Mexico in 1973, William Eggleston stopped at Los Alamos, the forested site of the atomic bomb’s clandestine development. He chose “Los Alamos” as the title for a sprawling body of work then nearing completion: approximately twenty-two hundred images photographed between 1966 and 1974. This title cloaks with some irony Eggleston’s ostensible subjects, found in a vast American terrain, yet acknowledges his belief in the aesthetic consequences of his private quest.
I find several windows into Eggleston’s world in Hopps’ intro. From a massive cache of 2,000 images, 75 jewels were culled for the finished portfolio. This becomes even more significant when you realize this work was made on a Rolliflex, a format that doesn’t easily invite multiple exposure and angles on a subject. (From the very beginning, Eggleston has claimed he makes only a single exposure of any subject; there is always another subject just outside his immediate field of vision, waiting for his eye to discover it.)
And here’s anther irony: As I walked the Met exhibition of 75 photographs, I realized that although the huge body of work is named for the high-desert New Mexico laboratory of Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, only one of the photographs credits the state of New Mexico as its site — and that is an anonymous cloudscape, almost as abstract as Stieglitz’s cloud-and-sky Equivalents series.
The Met’s announcement of the exhibition included this promotional copy, which alludes to Eggleston’s ongoing influence on a wide array of filmmakers and photographers. (The Bach and late-Baroque allusion, however, escapes me.)
Los Alamos is the work of an idiosyncratic artist whose influences are drawn from disparate but surprisingly complementary sources — from Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson in photography to Bach and the late Baroque in music. As much as Eggleston was influenced by various sources, he, too, has proved influential. His inventive photographs of commonplace subjects now serve as touchstones for generations of artists, musicians and filmmakers— from Nan Goldin to David Byrne, the Coen brothers and David Lynch.
It is not at all surprising that an artist who travels by car as much and as widely as Eggleston does has a near obsession with photographing automobiles. Two images of cars from Los Alamos provide real clues to the photographer’s eye, one that has revolutionized the way we all look at color photography ever since that landmark 1976 show, which offered in the year of America’s bicentennial a new way of looking at the American Experience.
The first image I want to show is a rear view of an Oldsmobile Cutlass. What must have immediately caught Eggleston’s eye is the way the car trunk and red taillights are chromatically doubled in the Delta Kream sign; it’s exactly the kind of synchronicity that Eggleston must have seen instantly but which easily escapes the casual eye. The absolutely flat two-dimensional perspective is also a recurrent aspect of his work. And, of course, the utter banality of the physical setting is a precise visual poetry caught by the artist’s eye.
The second car image is a bit more elusive. Eggleston has said that when he gets a photograph back from the printer, he likes to look at it upside down to study the compositional and chromatic elements. Here it is upside down:
And here it is as he shot it:
The car’s white roofline nearly disappears into the wall behind it. The sold color block of the car door and side panel is doubled by the intense blue sky. The blood-red seats are almost an abstract color field due to the fold-over of the seat and rest of the front passenger side. What can be a more banal subject than this car, and yet is more indicative of 20th century modernist abstraction or color-field painting?
Since Eggleston has a bred-in-the-bone resistance to discussing his art or its thematic methodology, the best way to understand how he works and how he sees would be to just follow in his wake. This is exactly what filmmaker Michael Almereyda did in his 2005 feature-length portrait of the artist, William Eggleston in the Real World.
The camerawork, direction and narration are all done by Almereyda. The technical quality of the cinematography may be uneven, and some critics have deemed the narration unhelpful, but this is still an incisive open window into the artistic eye and the private life of one of America’s most difficult artists. There is no way you will ever look at Eggleston’s work in the same way after you’ve watched this film. It’s not in the public domain as far as I know, but it is on YouTube, at least for now.
In any case, I strongly suggest you spring for the DVD not only to support the filmmaker, but also to treat yourself to better image quality.