All images copyright William Eggleston.
The first post. It needs to be big. It needs to be controversial. It needs to be someone much-loved and famous. It needs to be William Eggleston.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s much to love about Bill. His use of colour and his observations of the mighty and mundane USA are often terrific. The term ‘iconic image’ is overused, but he has created a few. Quite a few in fact.
But he has also put out some real shite. How or why I can’t tell you. If you ever meet him, ask, then let me know. Perhaps he bought into his own legend. Perhaps no one was honest with him. If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I’d say it was the latter.
There’s nothing a photographer needs more in this life than a good, frank editor, especially if the photographer in question sees things in his/her images that simply aren’t there. In the same spirit, there’s nothing worse than a photographer who has grown so big that no one dares tell him/her when his images are rubbish.
Even the greatest photographers shoot a lot of rubbish, but in the best case (for everyone) the public never sees it. Now I may be wrong, but I get the feeling that Bill acquired such a big aura over the years that for quite some time no one has been willing to give him an honest opinion anymore. He entered that artistically hazardous zone in which every work is greeted by a gasping ‘Ooooh’, even if the viewer doesn’t particularly get the image, much less like it.
This, I suspect has various causes, not least the viewer’s own confusion about the fact that a great photographer is presenting rubbish. The viewer panics and begins to think he or she is missing something and that it can’t be the legendary photographer’s fault. Well let me put it out there: it most certainly can be.
Let’s take the image at the top of this post as an example. It’s rubbish. It really is. If you saw it on Instagram you’d scroll straight past it. Even if I try to view it in the context of its time — the 1980s — it’s still rubbish.
Yet because it’s Eggleston you’re supposed to stand and ponder the significance of the clouds on the horizon, the curve in the road taking us to an unknown future. Rubbish! I say this is a nothing photo, not worth the pixels it occupies. At best it begs the question: at what point can an established artist shoot anything, no matter how meaningless, and transform it into art by dint of his reputation?
Let’s look at another example below, taken from the same series (The Democratic Forest, 1989):
This photo is crap. I hate to say it. I know it’s not nice. But it is crap, no two ways about it. If a student brought this to me I would fail them. Using the Instagram test above, I would scroll on by. It’s a B-grade screen saver.
Don’t come at me with ‘But look at the tonalities and the depth’, because none of this saves it from being at its core a bog average picture. Someone he respected needed to tell him this when he laid out the proofs, but no one had the balls. Am I to worship this tripe simply because t’was Eggleston who stood there and clicked the shutter? Well sorry, but I just can’t do it.
To round things out, I’m including one final image, again from the same series:
Now unlike the other two, I can see why some people might argue in this one’s favour. There’s something — not much, but something — going on with the lines, the tones, the composition, the shadows. They might say it asks questions about middle America and the humans who sometimes lie in this moribund space.
But in all honesty, aren’t we clutching at straws to validate the artist? Is this really enough to justify veneration? I say it’s not. In fact, I say it’s rubbish, and not just because I’m a decisive moment kinda guy at heart. It’s rubbish because it’s rubbish. And the greater sin, perhaps, is that it spawned imitators of such rubbish. Bill built a career on documenting banality, but it doesn’t always work.
Conclusion? Bill, I love a lot of your work, I really do, but when it’s not good enough, please keep it to yourself. As things stand, sometimes I just have to crap on your photos. Crap Factor 9/10.