Surely you’ve heard of Jeremy Lin? (The Knicks Harvard-educated, Asian-American point guard.) A better question might be, have you heard of him lately? Probably not. He might well be the world’s first viral athlete, rocketing from obscurity to planetary ubiquity within days. But an information-addicted global populace is in constant need of a new fix, so Mr. Lin has been relegated back to the bench. That’s how it is: today it’s Mitt Romney’s face on an Etch-a-sketch; tomorrow Barack Obama’s ears on an elephant.
Speaking of viral phenomena, you must have seen that article recently published in LPV magazine, called “10 Photographers You Should Ignore.” It went everywhere, almost immediately. Not surprising, as saying “Ignore Stephen Shore” is as inherently controversial as “Occupy Wall Street.” Guaranteed to get people talking.
The tweet might have gotten mad publicity, but the article was actually rather tame. The authors’ thesis was that photographers, (particularly younger photographers,) face a danger to their creativity when they push hero worship too far. Great work depends upon a fresh vision; a unique perspective. The more closely photographers emulate the greats, the more likely they’ll end up with derivative nonsense. It’s an important point, but the article would likely have drawn yawns, if titled “10 photographers that you should be careful not to be influenced by too much.”
Co-incidentally, a few hours before I saw that article, I took a look at a portfolio by a young Southern photographer at FotoFest. Almost immediately, I was repulsed by the shocking quality of a couple of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore knock-offs. Wow, were these pictures derivative. By the fourth or fifth photo, the artist’s own vision started to emerge, and by the end, I thought the project was really good. The artist had a keen eye for color, and a formal sensibility that was contemporary. But I couldn’t shake the those first few photos, like a great tiramisu at an inconsistent restaurant doesn’t quite get rid of the taste of that over-salted chicken.
Never one to mince words, I advised the photographer to get those first few images out of my sight. Burn them, I said. Off with their heads. There’s no reason in the world to show a copy of someone else’s work, when the original images that follow are compelling. Skunk scent is hard to wash off.
And what of these heroes? We need to carve our our own respective niches, but it’s vitally important to go back and re-visit the best work, again and again. Get close enough to the fire to warm up, but not so close as to singe your eyebrows.
Let’s tempt the fire gods, shall we? How about William Eggleston’s new primary colored trilogy “Chromes,” recently published by Steidl. When I refused to open Robert Adams’ triple-book-offering earlier this year, a couple of readers requested that I take a look at the Eggleston project. Why not?
Straight off, I can contrast it with the Adams’ publication, in that the slip cover is printed with shadowbox letters, in yellow and orange. Where RA’s work was cool and unapproachable, this is warm and inviting. Then, a quick look at the spines shows us yellow, red and blue. Whimsical and fun.
On to book one, and there’s little introductory text. Only a mention of the editors, nothing more. So it’s to be all about the pictures, is it? OK then.
We begin. A man asleep (the artist?,) cropped bare feet on a dirt road, another dirt road vanishing to nowhere, religious references, a dead, old black man in a shiny, satin coffin. On to a long-haired hippie, an abandoned shack, and then another black man, this time with a cigarette in his mouth, hands on a blue electric guitar. (Is he playing the blues?)
Cars, trucks, houses, and lots of late-afternoon light. Yes, this book takes us to the South, back in the day. And it does so with style. I suppose we’ll never know what it must have been like to see color images like this, for the first time? (At least those of us not around back then.) But while they may no longer seem revolutionary, they are absolutely exceptional.
Soon, we see an image with a sign that says “Mission Orange,” which is followed by six photographs containing the color orange. Witty editing, beautiful pictures. (A Wonder bread sign, a political ad for a Sheriff, a long freight train…) Then, six photos featuring grayish-white, and six that feature green. Are you paying attention? Apparently, Mr. Eggleston and his co-editors were.
Seeing so many of these pictures together, I can understand why it’s hard for photographers to lay off of this style. It’s so lyrical, so Romantic, so American. Of course, Mr. Eggleston owes a debt of gratitude to Walker Evans and Robert Frank, both of whom he references quite a bit. But still, try to take photos like this in 2012, and only one name will pop up. (Sorry, two. Mr. Shore has his denizens as well.)
Shall I go on? Book one ends with a diptych of a sleeping young child, in bed, across the spine from a photo of a light-up Halloween pumpkin and owl combo looming in a window. Spooky. A hint of things to come in Book two? (There’s also a brief essay dating these photos to 1969-74)
The red volume opens with the same witty tone. We see another run of images, this time grouped by signage. Cigarettes, Drug Store, Dixie Burgers, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Ice Cream and Gasoline. Thank you, good night. Wait, there’s still more?
Another Dixie flag, this time in neon. Then, perfect purple light surrounding another gas station, this time Arco. (I remember the first time I saw light like that, during a Tornado storm in Nebraska. This picture brings it back so quickly.)
Are there surprises? Well, we do have two portraits of men who look like hustlers or gigolos. (And one of them is juxtaposed against an image of Tom Jones and Elvis atop a juke box.) Yes, Mr. Eggleston has a sense of humor.
The rest of the volume holds true to form, though there are far more portraits than there were in the yellow book. Terrific portraits. It ends with a pimply-faced guy, drinking Coke on a pool table, in front of a sign that says “Refreshments.” Is that a cue for a bathroom break? Seriously, how many people would look at all three books in a row, in one sitting?.
Book three is blue, and the cover presents a photo of the inside of someone’s freezer. So this is the cold book, then? I’m obviously not sure yet, but this volume opens with another run. Again, signage. A flower shop, free steak knifes at a gas station, a bank, a row of toy dispensers, a pie shop, a drive-in movie theatre, a burger joint and a pinball machine. The 20th Century seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
As to the earlier question, is it cold? Kind of. We see the first few images with flash, and a recurring palette of blue, green, and a green-ish yellow. There’s also a photo of the artist, naked on a couch, with a gun-rack above his head. Followed closely by a bearded, drunk-looking guy, naked, in a green bathtub. Yes, I’d say that’s cold. As in, “That’s cold, brother, cold. Can you dig it?”
Any more surprises? Page 74 has a portrait of a guy who I’d swear is a young Lee Friedlander. Were they friends? (Followed, two pages later, by a photo of a drawing of Charles Manson. Let’s hope it’s not a reference to young Lee.) And it ends with a companion image to the portrait of the man that opens up Volume One. At the beginning, his eyes were closed, in bed. Here, they’re open, staring right at the camera.
Yes, that was a lot to digest. Shall I simplify? This is one fantastic collection of photographs. Really, it marks the vision of a master, a genius artist. For those of you obsessed with Mr. Eggleston, this is one to own. (I’m kind of sad that I have to give it back.) And for those of you who sometimes worry that you’re ripping off his style, check this trilogy out. Look at it like I did, all at once, and you’ll never again wonder, right before you click the shutter, whether the picture is yours or his. Because his vision will forever be burned into your brain.
Bottom Line: A Masterpiece, plain and simple
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