Or, The Curious Condition of Democracy in the Age of Obama
This retrospective of William Eggleston’s photographs opened at the Whitney on November 6, 2008. It is remarkable for the high-caliber of the image-making, no doubt; it is relevant to artists now for its fountainhead-like power of influence; and it is unsettling for the calendrical uncanniness with which it presents its myths of democracy, coming as it does in the same week that Barack Obama turned American political consciousness on its head.
William Eggleston / Memphis / 1968
Eggleston is roundly acknowledged, along with Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz, as standing at the beginning of American color fine art photography. This trio wed the new chemistry with a particular brand of “beat” image-making (”beat” in the Kerouac sense rather than the “beat journalism” sense, although there’s a dash of that too). This show justifies the acclaim. Nonetheless, there is a sense of being a victim of his own success. As the decades pile up, and his photographs come only occasionally to the fronts of our minds, the ubiquity of his aesthetic invention threatens to swallow the particular degree of accomplishment that he brings to the photographic image.
That is, the oblique, saturated, odd-cropping detail of daily life is now mundane. It’s not challenging, on its own, to be confronted with this type of image. Its penetration into the vernacular of our image-culture is complete. That is not to say that his own photography is indistinguishable from the general method. Quite the contrary, in fact: seeing again the specifics of Eggleston’s subjects and techniques is a reminder of his uniquely attuned vision.
Which brings us to the curious myth of the Democratic Camera. “Democratic” cuts in two diverging directions here: there is the sense of all those details out there in front of Eggleston, and all of them equally potent for the task of generating meaning; and then there’s sense that, per the democratic imperative, anyone armed with a camera can do it, too.
I posit that both these directions are wrong. In the first place, a group of images of this sort draws its power from the context of all the other images surrounding it. Once the viewer is inside a clearly-drawn world, individual images unfurl the beauty of their blossom, or their decay. But that world of images owes as much to an exacting editing process as to creating the exposures themselves. Editing - selecting, building, excluding, juxtaposing - could hardly be less democratic in that it depends entirely on the refinement of a heightened sensibility for its success…heightened, that is, relative to the base urges of the hoi polloi.
And if this is true of the set of images within which any single frame is articulated, it is doubly true within each single frame. It’s not the case that the camera can be pointed literally anywhere, and just because Eggleston pushes the shutter it comes out meaningful. Instead of the even field of “one detail, one vote”, the democracy of details is revealed as merely a comforting fiction.
From there the possibility that you, too, could be William Eggleston, and hey, aren’t we all William Eggleston, collapses. A quick browse of Flickr proves this. (Flickr is an utterly fascinating repository: in fact, a follow-up to this post could be written to argue about an alternate nature of the democratic camera, with Flickr as Exhibit A. But so far as I know, the Whitney has yet to mine that particular website in search of future subjects for comprehensive retrospectives.)
And so we come to the uncanniness of this myth playing itself out in public two days after the election of Barack Obama. We the American people ratified our core beliefs to a degree that left us stunned and amazed. It DOES matter if the people are engaged with the process, and if they understand that they have a stake in the outcome. And furthermore, enacting the truth of these core principles inflects our history with a type of meaning we couldn’t really assign to it before Tuesday night. It wasn’t possible to walk through this exhibition and understand images from the American South in the 1970’s without the knowledge that these particular threads are woven into the blanket of American life that warmed us Tuesday night. Such a thesis is disastrously pre-Post-Modern, I know. But if the “Democratic Camera” has any meaning, it must be found in the ability of the lens to create documents whose full story is not told at the moment of their creation: the democratic quality is that their stories are connected in a living way to our own, and that we all have a role to play in shaping the arc of their narrative, in determining whether it bends towards justice.