William Eggleston: Los Alamos @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 79 color photographs exhibited around all four walls of three rooms in the print galleries on the second floor, as well as on both sides of a partition in the middle room. These are dye-transfer prints. The show also includes 11 black-and-white photographs displayed on two exterior walls (painted yellow) introducing the exhibition. These are gelatin silver prints. A vitrine in the northern-most room contains the 5 hardcover volumes of Los Alamos, a portfolio of 75 dye-transfer prints published by the Eggleston Artistic Trust in 2002. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The oeuvres of artists, if they make a significant impact on their field, usually expand in two opposite directions. If critics and curators can surround an initial splash with sufficient acclaim or ignominy, the art world will trace each ripple of new work for years or perhaps decades after, curious to learn if the promise has been fulfilled. Should the artist merit a retrospective during that time or after death, curators will also typically delve into the artist’s past and unearth the less visible early work so that audiences can determine which quirks, tells, obsessions or techniques of the immature artist remained in the familiar one.

William Eggleston is an extreme case of this centrifugal process. Since his debut at MoMA in 1976, when his 35 mm. color photographs were reviewed with near-unanimous scorn, he has continued to shoot at a prodigious rate. Almost every year for the last 40 years, he has exhibited new work somewhere in the world, publishing more than 40 books, monographs and portfolios.

At the same time, the Eggleston Artistic Trust (founded in 1992) has been equally active in excavating and promoting his pre-1976 career. Stranded in Canton, his 1974 black-and-white video, was reedited as a DVD and published by Twin Palms as a book with images in 2008, while his black-and-white photographs from the 1960s were published as Before Color by Steidl in 2010.

The Trust has mined his color work from the pre-1976 years even more exhaustively. The MoMA show was printed entirely from transparencies. Although Eggleston shot some 5,000 Kodachromes and Ektachromes in the 1970s, MoMA’s curator John Szarkowski chose only 48 images for the catalog, William Eggleston’s Guide. Not until 2011, when Steidl published Chromes, with its sample of some 1,200 images from this period, was the scope of his borderless, sprawling ambition ascertained. (Out-of-print, these three volumes are now a pricey collector’s item in themselves.)

That’s not all. Between 1965 and 1974, Eggleston also shot roughly 2,200 negatives around Memphis and Mississippi Delta, where he grew up, and on several cross-country road trips with the curator Walter Hopps. The photographer called the results “a novel in progress” and dubbed this ongoing diary/travelogue the “Los Alamos project,” taking the name from the top-secret experimental laboratory in the New Mexico desert that produced the atomic bomb during World War II.

Material from these early years has appeared in at least three different books: in the one-volume Los Alamos, published by Scalo in 2003; in the three-volume Los Alamos Revisited, published by Steidl in 2012; and again in the one-volume catalog Los Alamos, published by Gagosian Gallery in 2012.

The Met’s splendid exhibition presents the 75 dye-transfer prints from the series that were selected for a portfolio printed by the Trust in 2002, in an edition of 7. Six additional dyes in the museum’s collection, and 11 black-and-white prints from the ‘60s and ‘70s, are integrated into the display.

While the curator Jeff Rosenheim doesn’t add anything to the many words written about Eggleston’s development by Thomas Weski, Mark Holborn, and others—the exhibition has no catalog and was prompted by a gift of the portfolio by collector Jade Lau—a walk through the three rooms is nonetheless a reminder of the photographer’s unique ability in those years to uncover dazzling things in the unlikeliest places, and from the basest ingredients.

As I wrote in 2003, when the Scalo edition was published: “He doesn’t look for the bizarre but somehow finds it everywhere, especially in scenes of placid normality. He can focus on a parked car’s red interior, the seat on the driver’s side twisted forward against the steering wheel, and infuse the scene with mystery. A soda-pop bottle on the hood of a shiny black car at a convenience store is photographed as though it contained a red elixir with magical powers.”

He has often said that he recalls vividly the first color photograph he shot. It’s here, as you walk into the first room: the head-shoulders-arm of a teenage boy pushing shopping carts at a supermarket in a honeyed late afternoon summer light (Untitled, Memphis, 1965).

The original print—a snapshot developed at a photomat or drug store—was first shown, I believe, at the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York in 1992. (One of my lasting regrets as a sometime collector is that I acted too late to buy this little gem; a European quickly snapped it up.) This print was also included in the traveling retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of Art in 2008. Yale University Press later featured the image on the cover of the catalog for Portraits, the 2016 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s become an Eggleston icon.

Indeed, what is most striking about a stroll through the galleries is the high number of classics it contains: the wool ski sweater drying on the Maytag washing machine; the disembodied hand touching  the clear plastic cup on the fold-down table aboard an airplane; the sleazy fake-fur trimmed yellow teddy on a porn-shop mannequin; the red-headed gas station attendant holding the nozzle like a pistol; the blue Bel-Air hardtop surrounded by trash and chained to a telephone pole; the red plastic ketchup squeeze bottles at an outdoor lunch counter.

Has any living photographer produced more instantly recognizable images than Eggleston? He’s become the go-to guy for designers of books, CDs, posters, and magazine stories—anyone who wants to imply something dark and inexplicable about the world without spelling out what that could be. Whoever believes that epiphanies are everywhere, and ready-made for anyone sensitive to illuminations of banality, can find proof in his photographs. His importance for film directors and musicians—Gus Van Sant, Sophia Coppola, Alex Chilton, David Byrne—is well documented. Perhaps only Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, and Andreas Gursky come close to being as culturally pervasive.

“Every picture is equal but different,” Eggleston has said. That may not be true, though, about phases in an artist’s career. By looking back so searchingly and profitably into his early work, and letting us examine its magnificent depths and diversity, the Eggleston Trust may be in danger of overshadowing what he has done in the last couple of decades. That is no crime. He wouldn’t be the first artist to have peaked before hitting middle age.

The Met has not enthusiastically welcomed Eggleston’s prints in the past, probably because MoMA and the Whitney exhibited and collected him earlier, and so eagerly that there was no need to compete. With this portfolio, the museum fills a conspicuous hole in its collections. Even if you’ve seen these pictures many times before, in the dozens of books and magazines that have reproduced them over the years, no photography show in New York at the moment is quite so ravishing as these dye-transfers of America the Not-So-Beautiful.

Collector’s POV: William Eggleston is represented in New York by David Zwirner (here), having bounced around various galleries in the past decade. His work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with lesser known images and iconic works coming up for sale with surprising regularity. Recent prices for single images have roughly ranged from a reasonable $5000 to the blockbuster $578500, a record achieved by one of the new (and somewhat controversial) extra large pigment prints.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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