Thirty years ago photography was art if it was black and white. Color pictures were tacky and cheap, the stuff of cigarette ads and snapshot albums. So in 1976, when William Eggleston had a solo show of full-color snapshotlike photographs at the august Museum of Modern Art, critics squawked.
It didn’t help that Mr. Eggleston’s pictures, shot in the Mississippi Delta, where he lived, were of nothings and nobodies: a child’s tricycle, a dinner table set for a meal, an unnamed woman perched on a suburban curb, an old man chatting up the photographer from his bed.
That MoMA’s curator of photography, John Szarkowski, had declared Mr. Eggleston’s work perfect was the last straw. “Perfectly banal, perfectly boring,” sniffed one writer; “erratic and ramshackle,” snapped another; “a mess,” declared a third.
Perfect or not, the images quickly became influential classics. And that’s how they look in “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008,” a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art that is this artist’s first New York museum solo since his seditious debut.
Okay, so it’s a little off-topic and I am being much-much too sensitive about this, but I cringed when I read the part where the author says Eggleston’s subjects were “nothings and nobodies”. Nevermind the inherent beauty of everyday objects – like the tricycle in Eggleston’s “Memphis” photograph above…who really thinks that people can actually be labeled “nobodies“?! I guess I know what the author is trying to say but haven’t most of us sat in a pew somewhere and heard a sermon probably every Priest, Preacher, and Rabbi has given about this?
The 150-photograph exhibit is open today through January 25, 2009 at the Whitney then goes on to Munich.
What I thought was so interesting was that this is Eggleston‘s first show in NYC since his one-man debut there at MoMA in 1976. And a first edition of the book that went along with the show, “William Eggleston’s Guide” now sells on Amazon and eBay for hundreds and hundreds of dollars (there’s even a signed one on eBay for $1750, obo).
The NYT has a slideshow of photographs from the show here.
Oh! And am I so happy that I took a look at the NYT Eggleston slideshow because I found that the paper did one for the “Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2008” (it’s here) and one is called “Wabi Sabi” by Mark Reibstein. Wabi Sabi is this Japanese word(s?)/concept that I’ve been in love with since I heard of it a few years ago. It means…well…I think of it as appreciation for what’s beautifully imperfect (like that Amish quilt I bought a few months ago, for instance). Here is a much better definition though, from the review that the Times did:
As Reibstein puts it: “Wabi sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest and mysterious. . . . It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea.”
This is something I want the boys to grow up with – that what’s “simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious” is beautiful.