Eggleston is famous for making color photography as aesthetically acceptable as black and white, and his New York exhibition in 1976 has gone down in history as one of those seminal moments in the development of photography as an art form. This could make him a dinosaur in art history, but one of the songs in By the Ways (a documentary film about Eggleston) is Dylan’s Desolation Row. The strange Philip-K.-Dick-world of that song is a perfect introduction to why the photographs by this man from Memphis belong so naturally to the world we now inhabit.
Eggleston photographed everyday life in the Anthropocene, an age where the banal becomes menacing and the ephemeral edgy. The objects that occupy his shots are utterly ordinary—vending machines, power wires, clutter, road signs, backyards. They are as mundane as the opening scenes in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where a man waters his lawn as his wife watches television and his children cross a road. Lynch cites Eggleston as an influence on his work, and you can sense this when, in Blue Velvet, the movie camera closes in with foreboding on the blades of grass surrounding the man—now suffering from a stroke—as the hose sprays water erratically. The objects occupying the same space as a person struggling for their life have a presence that seem, inhumanly, to be equally demanding of our attention. Eggleston does something similar with the striking luster and colors in his shots; the random objects imbue his scenes with an aura that comes from their chromatic presence and precious little else.
Very little of what Eggleston shoots feels permanent or worthy. Everything is disposable, man-made; Eggleston makes art out of nothing very much. This is not a criticism of his work: the nothing-very-much content is the ordinary furniture of daily life—parking meters, cars, brick walls, signage, leftover food on a plate, trash, an empty road.
In the documentary By The Ways, we see Eggleston at work as he walks and wanders, camera casually by his side, as if looking for something he has misplaced but actually weighing his possibilities. This style is deceptive, given the quality of the composition in his work and his uncanny ability to coordinate the constituents of his photographs: a child looking at a gun catalogue with the focus that young philatelists once brought to their stamp albums; the configurations of stationary cars in a parking lot; the precise arrangement of salt and pepper pots, an ashtray and a napkin dispenser on a tabletop in a café; a loose water hose, à la David Lynch, lying on the ground.
The Democratic Forest: Selected Works is an assortment of photographs from a much larger collection of the same name, and the book is an admirable introduction to Eggleston’s unnerving ability to allow the familiar to reveal its strangeness. How he does it remains a mystery. In the documentary, a young French journalist attempts to ask him about his art and receives only a desultory response after long silences. The Democratic Forest is all about silences: there are few shots in the 68 plates that suggests human interactions: in one, four passengers in a bus smile at one another—perhaps because they’ve spotted a man with a camera pointed at the lurid yellow vehicle in which they are traveling.
The book has an incisive introduction by Alexander Nemerov. His father, Howard Nemerov (brother to Diane Arbus) wrote a book called Journal of the Fictive Life that has a lot to say about photography. In it, he asserts that “The camera wants to know” (the italics are his). With William Eggleston, the camera just wants to see.