William Eggleston: The Outlands @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a series of five connected gallery spaces. All of the works are pigment prints, made c1970-1973 and printed recently. Physical sizes are roughly 45×65 inches (or the reverse), with a few inches of variation between images, and all of the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

A comprehensive 3-volume monograph of this body of work was published in 2021 by Steidl (here). Clothbound hardcover volumes in slipcase, 31.5 x 32 cm, 652 pages, with 405 images. Edited by Mark Holborn, William Eggleston III and Winston Eggleston.

A single volume of selections from The Outlands has been published by the gallery’s book publishing arm (here). Softcover, 10.75 × 14.75 in, 224 pages, with 123 reproductions. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Now in his 80s, and likely the unofficial living figurehead of American photography, William Eggleston has settled into a period of busily cementing his far reaching legacy. If he is making new work, we haven’t seen it; his last gallery show of new photographs in New York was more than a decade ago now. Instead, with the help of his adult children and other curators and supporters, he’s been digging back into his storage boxes and reevaluating pictures made decades ago, allowing his team to sift through the thousands of photographs that didn’t get included in the first pass of books, exhibits, and portfolios we know well already.

Given how prolific Eggleston has been across his career, this re-editing process has been a gargantuan task, and beginning in 2011 and with the help of Gerhard Steidl and his team of expert bookmakers, these unwieldy piles of prints and transparencies have been scanned, corrected, sequenced, and meticulously refashioned into handsome comprehensive reissues of various bodies of work.

The Outlands is essentially the third pass across Eggleston’s early work in color (which we might define to have been made between roughly 1969 and 1974). Eggleston and curator John Szarkowski took the initial cut and chose 48 images, which became the iconic 1976 MoMA exhibit and photobook William Eggleston’s Guide. The Eggleston team took another pass through the resurfaced binders to build out the Chromes boxed set in 2011. And The Outlands continues to mine much of the same artistic territory, unearthing another 400 or so previously unseen and unpublished images from the same working period, with perhaps a bit more geographic stretching to the outskirts of suburban Memphis and into Mississippi and elsewhere. The further the digging has gone, the more we head into a zone of what might reasonably call rarities, outtakes, alternates, and special cuts, presumably aimed mostly at the viewer who wants a comprehensive deep dive into “everything”. But even after so many skims of artistic cream off the top, the works that have been rediscovered are still filled with a surprising degree of consistency and quality, thereby validating the entire endeavor.

This gallery show pares the fuller Steidl edit of The Outlands back down first to a “selections” cut, which have been gathered into Zwirner’s own photobook, and then on to an even tighter group of just under 30 prints, roomily displayed in many of the gallery’s adjoining 19th street spaces. All of the images have been displayed as pigment prints in Eggleston’s now signature larger size, which was inaugurated a decade ago now at the historic auction at Christie’s.

What Eggleston broadly offers us in these images is the American South in its faded early 1970s glory, with the old ice cream parlors, drive-ins, truck stops, juke joints, and diners of the 1950s showing their age a bit, but seen with loving attention by Eggleston in the golden light of the afternoon or as the purple skies of twilight hover overhead. As we might have expected given what we already know about Eggleston’s work from this time, many of these rediscovered images are understated color studies, with neon or commercial signage, striped paint, and the hoods of parked cars and trucks providing many of the elements Eggleston was compositionally playing with. He gets in close to the surfaces of a lushly glossy dark green car, with its matching smashed side mirror and back window, and seethes in a red room variant, not of the so-called “red ceiling” but of a male nude in a red room covered with crazed graffiti, the image now centered on an oxygen tank in the corner. Other images stack receding car hoods into a color array, pick out the fresh lime green paint of an auto repair shop, and notice the alternating pink and white dresses in church pews.

And while Eggleston found these kinds of color arrangements again and again, the introduction of even a single figure into the compositions opened up the narrative possibilities much more. The strongest image in the show offers us the uncertainty of a single red woman’s shoe coming out of a mundane brown station wagon. The woman is Eggleston’s wife and the image was taken on one of their many afternoons driving around looking for pictures, but even when we know the backstory, the serendipity of the two nearby chickens, the dark cloudy skies overhead, the open doors of the car, and that single shoe give the picture a sultry film noir zing of open-ended potential. Right nearby, another image of a woman in a tan overcoat outside a liquor store has a similar kind of humming electricity, the shiny fin of the nearby car, her red shoes, and the BOURBON SUPREME logo in the background adding to the unspoken mystery. Elsewhere in the show, the figure of a solitary man stands on a street corner, the brick building in front of him painted a saturated red while two cars pass by, one yellow and one blue; of course, it’s a lucky triumvirate of primary colors that would have made Barnett Newman happy, but the presence of the shirt-sleeved man (in monochrome white and black) interrupts the color game with his own observation of the scene.

Several other images find Eggleston intentionally experimenting with his compositional options. He makes a diner image from the low perspective of the shiny formica tabletop, and repeats the slightly upward worm’s eye view of his famous tricycle image in a picture of a two-toned light blue car seen from the pavement of a parking lot. Other compositional cleverness comes in the form of a steep upward angle employed to capture both the decorative edge of an ice cream parlor and an airplane in the clouds above, and in a view of a red car that includes the frontal interruption of the sparkling side mirror of the car Eggleston is sitting in, adding in a small view of a 7/11 somewhere in the background. All of these choices point to Eggleston carefully thinking about how he was arranging and framing his pictures, restlessly trying out alternate vantage points to find the right visual energy.

If the images in this show feel familiar, even if we have’t seen them before, it’s because they so neatly fit into what we think we know about Eggleston’s aesthetics. The image of an iced tea on a diner table looks vaguely like the image of the cocktail on the airplane tray table we already know, but reshuffled with crackers, butter pats, a cup of coffee, and the edge of a brown coat. The Outlands offers the opportunity for Eggleston to tell us some visual stories we haven’t heard before, but from within a framework of reference that we expect. That predictability is both the strength and the underlying weakness of this show – as we dig deeper into the vault, we’re finding plenty more corroborating evidence of Eggleston’s mastery of the medium, but also less artistic friction that might force us sit up and take notice.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $185000 each, with only the first two in the edition for sale. Eggleston’s 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 newer pigment prints.

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