There was a gift of an entire idyllic day at the Chicago Art Institute earlier this summer, many hours of which were spent circling around and around the William Eggleston: Democratic Camera exhibit.
I couldn’t stop looking.
The dye-transfer coloring is visually beautiful, of course — something about the heated intensity of the color giving the gritty quotidian realities within the photographs an almost surreal patina — a lacquered, Cutex-nail-polished weird glamour.
Visual pleasure was only part of it, though. The tension between the visual beauty of the images, and the uneasy grotesqueries of their content, was heart-rending for me. The attentiveness — the mindfulness, if you will — of the aesthetic resonated very strongly with and for me, but it was ultimately a sense of the tenderness of the gaze that completely unraveled me. An acceptance of the shabby, the crazy, the not-beautiful, the banal, and the mundane. Everything seemingly as it is, and therefore completely unshelled. Completely vulnerable. An aperture open to aperture. And because of that tenderness of looking unspeakably beautiful.
That these pictures — particularly the ones from Los Alamos — seemed full of kitschy cultural tropes from my own 1970’s childhood in Wyoming (where everything was always a little bit behind–flower power and disco a thin varnish over sedimental layers of 1950’s and rugged frontier sensibilities) is undoubtedly also part of their appeal for me: a Jarrellian Lost World of sorts, maybe. And it’s not an easy nostalgia, or a Lost World that I would ever care to return to, but rather a place of terrible vulnerability, helplessness, and suffering.
Eggleston’s photographs capture this sense of a Lost World in the fleeting instant at which it’s lost in each passing moment, and it’s a Lost World that’s revealed as uncertain, vulnerable, and in pain; chock-a-block with fraying banalities of kitsch and schlock — banalities that are recognizable from my own cultural vocabulary and which ultimately end up, perhaps, underscoring my own poignant sense of the Japanese aesthetic of utsuroi, or evanescence.
This image, an untitled photograph of simple plastic animals on a worn table, made me weep the first time I saw it. A completely personal response in many respects, I’m sure, but still . . . why? How? Maybe something about the aleatoric/chance randomness of the animals almost like a John Cage composition. (In fact, for some reason it made me think of the colored vocal lines in “Aria (1958)”.) Maybe it’s the questions that get raised — and every Eggleston photograph raises unanswered questions. Maybe it’s the attentiveness of the eye that notices. Or maybe the tenderness of the framing and the recording. Democratic is the word that is used for Eggleston’s approach/aesthetic, and yes, this seems true to me, but what I feel so powerfully moved by is, I think, the large compassion of his vision.