Artist Makes the Everyday Into Something Profound

Posted June 23, 2009 at 4:54pm

A drink on an airplane tray table. A worn-out sign screaming “PEACHES!— on top of a building. A cooked chicken sitting on a table. These are the everyday objects turned high art by William Eggleston and on display at the Corcoran Gallery for the summer.

The exhibit, “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008,— is organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and has excited many at the Corcoran.

“It does seem to me that we’re dealing with one of America’s greatest living artists,— said Paul Greenhouse, the gallery’s director and president.

The exhibit covers all of Eggleston’s illustrious career — from his early, largely unknown black-and-white photos, to his historic 1976 showcase at the Museum of Modern Art, to his more recent work.

Eggleston’s black-and-white photography is largely unknown because he became famous as an innovator in color photography. The art, though, remains well-respected.

“If Eggleston had never turned to color photography, and had stuck to black-and-white, we would have been thrilled with what he did,— said Elizabeth Sussman, a curator with the Whitney Museum.

Corcoran officials repeatedly emphasized the importance of Eggleston in advancing the medium of color photography. Particularly important, they said, was his use of the dye-transfer process, which quelled many artists’ and gallery directors’ worries that the color in the photos would fade.

“The great fear was that color photography was a fugitive medium,— Sussman said.

Eggleston’s work is divided into sections at the large gallery — each section has a wall-mounted explanation of the significance of the work, the reason Eggleston took the pictures and how they came to be presented.

One section contains photographs Eggleston took in Plains, Ga., Jimmy Carter’s hometown, on the day before he was elected president in 1976. Rolling Stone originally commissioned the photos, but the magazine ended up not using them. Eggleston eventually put the photos together in a presentation called “Election Eve.—

In addition to the photography, the exhibition also features two of Eggleston’s experiments in video.

In one of the first rooms, four TVs are set up in the center, facing out. Each is showing Eggleston’s 1960s black-and-white video project “Stranded in Canton.— The video features people from throughout Eggleston’s native South, particularly the Mississippi Delta region, talking and singing. The sound from this room, particularly the blues songs, echoes throughout the exhibit, providing an interesting ambiance.

The second video project, “Moving,— is in color and is less prominently featured — only one small television in the corner of a later room plays it.

Eggleston has a long history at the Corcoran. He has had three solo exhibitions there in the past, and the gallery has a number of his photographs in its collection already. Sussman said that when organizing the exhibit and choosing where to hold it, there were many choices, but the Corcoran stood out.

“It was as if everybody in the country wanted to have this exhibition,— she said. “There was no question in my mind.—

She further noted that the art already on display at the gallery was important in the decision.

“People should know what’s at the Corcoran,— she said.