William Eggleston: Democratic Camera

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a twofer - a review of the book and the exhibition.

The Long Version: William Eggleston is one of the early greats of colour photography - the American south's version of Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps. While they're certainly not for everyone, Eggleston's casual and spontaneous-looking photos typically have a deeper structure and content that rewards extended viewing. (I've never really 'gotten' HC-B's images, but perhaps like William Albert Allard, I see in colour.) But even beyond the question of personal taste, there's no doubt that Eggleston is an important and pioneering photographer, and this collection of images that spans nearly fifty years is a fascinating study of a strongly consistent body of work.

The reproductions in the book "William Eggleston: Democratic Camera" (ISBN 978-0300126211) are beautifully done, and the book is well produced. Images typically occupy only the right page, with some two-page layouts where the photographs strengthen each other. Only the occasional image is spoilt by extending across the gutter; I continue to miss the appeal of that approach, but it is a fairly common thing for photography books. Rounding out the front and back are essays and information that provides additional context for the photography.

The book is a physical experience in its own right, being almost a foot tall and over an inch thick; my kitchen scale thinks that it weighs just under five pounds. Finding it for sale might also be an experience, as Amazon in the USA and Canada are "temporarily out of stock". Currently the Canadian chain Chapers/Indigo is also sold out, and at a price that's about 50% higher. Nifty work, that. And while I'm on the subject, Amazon's Canadian sold-out price is also almost 20% higher than it was when they shipped me my copy. I'm not about to endorse the prices that some of the used vendors are asking for, but if I had paid $60 for mine, I would still think it's a good deal. It also happens to be one of the best souvenirs I could hope for.

Doorway detail, taken with permission, ARTIC.

Put together by the Whitney Museum of American Art - in association with Haus der Kunst, Munich - the exhibition "William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008" is a vast photographic collection that's currently on tour. I was lucky enough to catch it at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it's on display until May 23. Starting in November, and lasting through the start of their so-called winter, the exhibition will end its tour at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As good as the book is, the originals are much better.

Many of the images on display use the sublime Dye Transfer printing process. The reds of this famous photograph are intense, rich and varied; blue skies are smooth and keep their colour all the way to the edge of black. The application of this expensive and nearly extinct process to Eggleston's snapshot-like photographs of ubiquitous objects can translate into a certain gravitas; it could be the launching point for a discussion of fine-art photography and its place in the (art) world. Instead, I'll just say that it produces some amazing results, and leave it at that.

The photo reproduced above is one of my favourite images - how could it not be? - and it's also an excellent example of why seeing the book, and the original prints in the show, is so important. Mine is an absolutely horrible reproduction. Nothing looks the way it should. In the book, the sky has sophisticated colours and tones; in the dye-sub print, the sign is almost luminous with a beautiful colour harmony. This feeble copy has been demolished by its colour space and compression.

It's tempting for me to pretend that what's on the screen looks like reality. Seeing good art, either in person or in quality reproductions, is worth the extra effort. William Eggleston: Democratic Camera has been a refreshing experience.

For a lively, interesting, and much better-educated discussion of the Art Institute's exhibition of William Eggleston's works, head over to The Online Photographer for the articles written by Mike Johnson and Ken Tanaka. All I can really add to their insights is that I didn't think it was that dark in there.


  1. Absolutely a different experience to see the real deal. In November I saw the Richard Avedon exhibit at the San Francisco MOMA. It's the scale, detail and quality that you can't get any other way.


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