The first thing you notice about a William Eggleston photograph is the color: often surreal and other worldly beautiful (especially in the Graceland photographs) it makes you look at the familiar in a new way. The process he uses is called dye transfer and it allows him to manipulate one hue in an image without altering the others. Even his sketchbooks, filled with swishes of brights and bolds show his obsession and love for color. He was one of the first photographers to work in color and have it be taken seriously as art and now his career is being appreciated by the Whitney.
I was surprised then, by his huge black and white portraits which were just as powerful and stunning. They sat in a room with TV sets playing his video documentaries of the people he knew in his home town. Most subjects in his work are from the south, it's his people, his land and never treads the common ground of exploitation because of that.
There is work to be seen here from all his great books: Los Alamos, Democratic Forest, Graceland, Election Eve, Mississippi Delta, Stranded in Canton, 14 Pictures, William Eggleston's Guide, and True Stories.
The last is an interesting collaboration between he and David Byrne, the photos taken during the shooting of that truly amazing work True Stories. The fact that Eggleston was an inspiration for Byrne is not surprising he also inspired filmmakers Sofia Coppola and Gus Van Sant. Eggleston had an eye for capturing the mundane within the vibrant American landscape; from dirty dishes to an ice box stuffed with beef pies to flowers sitting outside a bodega. The idea of the mundane as art is typical now, but he began a very new and a very American approach and it's never been done better.
His photos are crisp and clean and remind me of high definition, in the sense that they make you feel like you're right there and you relate to them. I don't just say that because this posted image looks like my long lost prettier sister (someone standing next to me even remarked “She looks like the photo” to my blushing delight) but because he captures life and makes it look spectacular.
Nearly all his work is untitled, and he has no favorites. He has to have friends help him edit because he sees his images equal but different. He lends that same fair eye to his subjects so the title of the show is quite apt for a truly democratic man….
At the Calder exhibit, you are first greeted with a fun wall of wire portraits. A whimsical take on the traditional art form, they express so much with so little and leave behind equally interesting shadows that are as much of the work as the armature.
The next rooms hold his contraptions and mobiles. They are the least exciting for me but interesting to look at. The seem functional while at the same time are wildly not – just shapes in black and white with a bit of color. It's comparatively somber to the next room filled with his joyful circus work.
I am easily amazed with three dimensional craftsmanship, as I myself have no skills in that area, and Jim, ha – I should tell you the story sometime about the bike he tried to make out of wire in college. But it's not just Calder's craft, but his whimsy and life he injects into these moving sculptures that make them so special. As a person that counts drawing cats and polar bears repeatedly as part of her job, I can say it's a feat to infuse character into simple animals.
The video playing overhead and in the next room is priceless. The adults sitting watching were smiling and happy and the audience on the film were oohing in ahhing. The circus is not hi tech but very hand made, Calder in the video often uses his hands to move things around to everyone's delight.
It's an in depth show that also includes toys he made in Oshkosh, WI, more wire work inspired by Josephine Baker, and some great sketches and drawings. It's great to have two such different but wonderful shows under one roof. Don't let them pass you by. The Eggleston show ends January 25, Calder on February 15.