Claudio Pogo, Claudio Pogo’s Guide

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by PogoBooks and Outer Space Press (here). Debossed leatherette hardcover with tipped in cover photo, 230 mm x 235 mm, 112 pages, with 48 color reproductions. Includes an illustrated image index and brief author biography. In an edition of 100 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: “Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.” This was Hilton Kramer’s contemporary judgement of William Eggleston’s Guide, the landmark 1976 MoMA exhibition and photobook. Although his critique looks rather benighted in retrospect, it has had staying power. Forty-five years later, it is still perhaps the most notorious photo pan ever penned. This might be because, even though contrarian, it contains a kernel of truth.

One wonders how Hilton Kramer might react to Claudio Pogo’s Guide, a new satirical take on William Eggleston’s Guide produced under Pogo’s imprint PogoBooks, in conjunction with Outer Space Press, the Berlin publishing house he runs with Magda Wysocka. With full control over artistic choices, he has produced a small powerhouse of a book which is perfectly banal, but certainly not boring. Claudio Pogo’s Guide takes the shell of Eggleston’s classic, and with viral efficiency, injects new contents into its cell wall. The book is the same size and format, with familiar leatherette black cover, tipped in tricycle photo and debossed gold lettering. But William Eggleston’s name has been replaced with Claudio Pogo’s. Looking more closely, that’s not his tricycle either. Instead it’s a close trike cousin, shot from the same angle and set inside a visually similar frame. 

Flipping to the interior, the hijinks continue. Claudio Pogo’s Guide features the same faint green paper stock as the original. The title page and introductory texts adopt the same script and layout. But they’ve been transformed into an alt-Eggleston universe. A short bio page shows a monochrome Pogo reading the paper on a bus, seated in roughly the same posture as Eggleston’s 1976 portrait. The text below recounts Pogo’s career in deadpan tone: “His interest in photography began while he worked in a photo lab and was pursued desultorily until about 1999…” Here is Eggleston’s original text: “His interest in photography began while he was at Vanderbilt and was pursued desultorily until about 1962…” 

The colophon discusses production logistics, but in place of the Eggleston’s acknowledgement thanking Vivitar and the NEA, the current book “and the exhibition it accompanied (which never happened) were made possible through the generous support of absolutely no one.” Just below this passage, Pogo finally spills the secret sauce: “All images in this publication were suggested by Reverse Image Search Engines as ‘visually similar images’ to the original photographs taken from William Eggleston’s Guide.”   

Browsing the book with Eggleston’s original close at hand (I recommend pulling it from your shelf as you dive into Pogo), it is difficult to find any place where they much diverge. The most noteworthy change is the substitution of an illustrated index for John Szarkowski’s essay. But this difference is quickly surmounted. Like clockwork it lasts exactly 10 pages (Szarkowski’s length), after which the new images synch into their original page count. The layout follows the original, subtly positioning each picture in vertical space to mimic camera angle. Assigned to each photo is an original Eggleston caption with the word “not” attached. For example, Not Tallahatchie County, Mississippi or Not Jackson, Mississippi. The ruse sometimes extends to absurd lengths, as when recaptioning Eggleston’s famous race relations parking lot: Not Sumner, Not Mississippi, No Cassidy Bayou in the background. 

It’s all too clever, and quite a kick to browse. The world of photobooks can sometimes wallow in melodrama and grandiosity. It’s all so serious, and a humorous lampoon like this comes as a breath of fresh air. Not since Eric Doeringer’s early 2000s Ed Ruscha mimics have I seen such a spot on parody.  

But Pogo’s Guide is not all fun and games. As with any successful mockery, this one reveals truths about its target, and raises provocative questions. What is Eggleston’s secret sauce? What exactly is it that distinguishes his pictures from others? Is it the Justice Potter rule, you know one when you see it? I’ve been an Eggleston fan for years and these are still tricky questions. One person’s “banal and boring” might be another’s “bucolic modesty”—Szarkowski’s characterization of Eggleston. He described Eggleston’s photographs as mere “patterns of random facts in the service of one imagination.” If that comment comes across as a backhanded compliment, it might be relished in a certain Memphis manor. 

Forty-five years after the original Guide, the peculiar sorcery of Eggleston remains somewhat ineffable. At war with the obvious? That phrase might describe not just his photos, but all surrounding commentary. Ambiguity and varied interpretations have only bolstered the legacy. Clearly Pogo is a fan, and this book is an homage to the master. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and his absurdist approach might be seen as one viewer’s attempt to get into Eggleston’s head. But that goal is elusive. “A new work of art that describes something we had known well,” warned Szarkowski, “is likely to seem as unfamiliar and arbitrary as our own passport photos.”

Perhaps a reverse search engine can get at the truth? As a coherent body of work, the premise seems silly. But when taken at surface level, individual results can come pretty darned close. Pogo must have chucked to himself when his search for the mysterious black oven in the photo Memphis turned up a virtually identical version online. To avoid any confusion, Pogo’s is called Not Memphis. Eggleston’s Downtown Morton, Mississippi, showing a beautifully hued town skyline at twilight, meets its match in Pogo’s alt-version Not Downtown, Morton, Mississippi. The aforementioned trike photos are quite similar. It’s hard to choose a favorite. And Pogo’s Not Jackson, Mississippi might out-Eggleston the master. It shows a wool shawled woman softly framed in the backseat of a vintage car. A take on the strange backseat passenger in Eggleston’s Jackson, Mississippi, this photo might just pass for the real thing if it were included in the original Guide.

At first glance these pictures make a good impression. But the blush quickly fades. For one thing, Pogo’s photos have nothing to do with Memphis or its environs. They might have been shot anywhere. Their rootless quality contrasts sharply with Eggleston’s pictures, which seem to hover so much in the vernacular, describing his idiosyncratic local wanderings and relationships. “A private experience described in a manner that is restrained, austere, and public,” as described by Szarkowski.

Other search engine results stray further. In Eggleston’s famous dining table photo Sumner, Mississippi, an elegant spread provides the backdrop for a white platter of meat and vegetables. The photo seems to split the difference between mundane meal and Eggleston’s regal milieu. And the roast beef and spinach are themselves split. They form a yin-yang, with the meat-half spiraling into its own medium-rare galaxy. By some peculiar alchemy that red swirl has implanted in my mind since the first time I saw it. “[Eggleston]’s pictures seem to radiate from a central singular core,” explained Alfred H. Barr, according to Szarkowski. The same does not apply to Pogo’s bot-sourced version Not Sumner, Not Mississippi. It shows a limp tabletop of food plates in stiff lighting. The photo is more formal than the typical “here’s-what-I-ate” snapshot. Still, its visual plate seems unappetizing. “Whatever else a photograph may be about,” wrote Szarkowski, “it is inevitably about photography.” In this case, it’s not about much more.

Pogo’s alternate universe wears even thinner in photographs of people, a subject which Eggleston captured with understated power, and a degree of arms-length intimacy. Many subject in William Eggleston’s Guide were friends and relatives, although none are identified by name. His well-known photo Memphis shows a woman sitting on a curb by a chain. He has apparently just caught her attention. Her hand is in motion she tries to pinpoint her observer. The frame is bottom weighted, on the verge of falling apart actually, but the woman’s intense gaze holds it together. Pogo’s version Not Memphis has no such coherency. It also features a woman in a dark blue dress on a curb but she looks away. Why she is spreading her legs open to the camera? The question injects some mystery, but the answer doesn’t seem very urgent. Pogo’s alt-version of a man stretching inside a red graffitied room also seems more rote than mysterious. It might just be that the territory has been claimed, and no future photo of those elements can muscle past it.

It is great fun to browse the two books together page by page, comparing and contrasting (for those who can’t access the original, Pogo’s illustrated index pairs small icons from both books). There may be more misses than hits, but on a certain level Pogo has Eggleston’s number. He repeatedly chooses images which dance on the edge of believability. Could they pass for Eggleston’s? In an alternate universe, perhaps yes. But Eggleston’s estate needn’t fret. As a book, Claudio Pogo’s Guide is not meant to blur boundaries or authorship, but instead as entertainment. Like photography in general, its translation of raw material sometimes bears uncanny resemblance to the original. But it should not be mistaken for the real thing. 

While you have the original William Eggleston’s Guide handy, it is well worth rereading Szarkowski’s introduction. It is lengthy, but it flows quickly. He had been the head of MoMA’s photography department almost fifteen years at that point, and was at the height of his critical powers. His essay contextualizes Eggleston, in an attempt to convert unbelievers to the new church of color snaps. It proved to be largely successful in that regard (Hilton Kramer notwithstanding), serving as the launching pad for Eggleston’s career and all the wonderful works to follow. But his text goes far beyond Eggleston. The Guide became a handy vehicle for Szarkowski to crystallize a career’s worth of deep thought about how photographs work, and how we might think about and interact with them. The essay spills over with one idea after another, all in his inimitable, articulate phrasing. Among other things it references the power of bot-based imagery. “Even the automatic cameras that record the comings and goings in banks describe facts and relationships that surprise mere eye-witnesses,” wrote Szarkowski. Although he couldn’t have foreseen it at the time, his essay would pave the way for Pogo 45 years in the future.

Collector’s POV: Claudio Pogo does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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