William Eggleston: Prince of Melancholy

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Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in the world captured in the photos by William Eggleston. But if you take a deep breath and allow yourself the luxury of slowing down, then his photos will start to whisper and maybe even sing to you their irresistible songs.

at110105a.jpgThe traveling retrospective of William Eggleston's photographs on display at LACMA until January 16, consists of more than 200 images and covers a fifty year span of his career. "Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised on his family's cotton plantation in Mississippi," Eggleston, according to the museum's press release "has produced a veritable encyclopedia of everyday life in his native Memphis, New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta."

at110105b.jpgTo be completely honest, until seeing this exhibition I had not more than polite respect for the work of this quintessential southern gentleman. But this ambitious and sprawling museum exhibition opened my eyes to the quiet beauty and melancholic poetry of the Eggleston camera: A dog lapping from a puddle on a country road; An American diner dominated by the elaborate hairdo of a woman viewed from behind; A naked electric bulb stuck in the middle of a blood red room. And the list goes on and on and on.

at110105c.jpgIf you are familiar with the writing of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner then these photographs will undoubtedly make a particularly strong impression on you. But don't be fooled by the casual simplicity of his images and compositions. For years, an untold number of photographers have turned their cameras and attention toward the same subjects with the most numbing and banal results. But the Eggleston photographs reveal a superb sense of composition and the poetic minimalism of his aesthetic.

at110104d.jpgSome artists spend decades searching for their unique artistic voice, but Eggleston seemingly found his voice and vision from the very beginning. In his own quiet way the artist profoundly transformed the way we perceive photography - color photography to be specific. Until William Eggleston started to produce his signature dye transfer images, color photography was traditionally considered to be exclusively a commercial phenomenon. Most of his photographs, even those saturated with color, look slightly faded, which gives them a particularly nostalgic, wistful mood.

at110105e.jpgGoing through the exhibition one can get the impression that the artist never left his native South, but that is far from true. He traveled widely and became friends with major artists of his day including Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. His first portfolio was published when he was in his thirties and subsequently a number of major museums in the United States and abroad organized exhibitions of his work.

My second visit to LACMA to see this exhibition put me in a particularly philosophical mood. Through his camera, ordinary everyday life, with all its trivial occurrences, is shaped into a profound portrayal of American culture. A very old and very wise friend of mine once said "Edward, life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you make out of it." For me, these words perfectly describe the unique artistic vision of William Eggleston.

To see images discussed in Art Talk, go to KCRW.com/ArtTalk.

Banner image: Three images by William Eggleston