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William Eggleston: Democratic Hellraiser?

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Remember that scene where Dorothy and Toto realize they're not in Kansas anymore? That same combined sensation of awe, homesickness and hallucination probably described the crowd at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, as they stood before William Eggleston's color photography exhibit for the first time. Until then, art photography was almost strictly black and white. Color had been the stuff of kitschy catalogs and commercial advertisements. Famed photographers like Walker Evans even called color photography "vulgar." That '76 exhibit was called "the most hated show of the year" by one bitter critic. But Eggleston didn't care what the critics had to say. In fact, he still doesn't.

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Eggleston was in town for a few days for the opening of his retrospective exhibit, "Democratic Camera," at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art. An archetypal, bow-tied Southern gentleman, he agreed to give us a private tour through the gallery the afternoon before its opening — a coveted experience with a notoriously reclusive artist.

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William Eggleston, courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust

Eggleston was born in Memphis in 1939 to landed Southern gentry and spent much of his youth in Mississippi with his grandparents. His grandfather gave him his first camera, but not until his 20s did he really begin photographing. He shrugs off the question about switching to color. To him, that decision was tantamount to any other: somewhat arbitrary. He just so happened to make it at the right time. Bored with the black and white status quo, he simply "thought it'd be lovely to see these pictures ... in fine color prints."

As if working in color wasn't enough, Eggleston took his subversion a step further. Rather than photographing landscapes or social documentaries, Eggleston shot the things in his own backyard: old Cadillacs, piles of litter, dilapidated road signs — things associated with Americana. For this reason, Eggleston is often regarded as an Americanist, or a quintessentially Southern artist. But don't be deceived by the Coke bottles and American flags or his lulling Southern drawl. He also has photos from Paris and Kyoto, and he says his method is exactly the same: He photographs democratically.

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Untitled, 1970, from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74, William Eggleston, courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust hide caption

itoggle caption William Eggleston, courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust

For Eggleston, everything is interesting enough to deserve a photograph. And this democratic spirit is his real legacy. Although he doesn't quite understand what people mean when they tell him, "You changed the way I see the world," the fact remains that he has. Perhaps the living legend is an accidental genius, but before his lurid color prints hit the gallery walls, few people would have found beauty in their own rundown suburban backyards. Whether or not he meant to, and whether or not he cares, Eggleston has taught us to open our eyes and see the wide spectrum of colors around us. He says he doesn't think much about it. But a few subtle winks and a glimmer in his eye tell me he knows exactly what he's doing.

One New York Times writer called him a "dandyish hellraiser." When asked what he thought of this, Eggleston replied, "There are a lot of meanings to dandy ... and I don't know which one they were meaning."
"Are you a hell-raiser?" I asked.
"Sometimes."
"Where do you do this raising of hell?"
"Not any one place."
"Anywhere. Democratic hellraising," I offered.
"That's right," he confirmed.

At the end of our tour, we sat on a bench in the middle of the gallery, contemplating a lifetime of photography. I asked Eggleston what his grandfather would think of it all. "I don't have any idea," he said in his slow, soft-spoken timbre. "We were very close. I was crazy about him, and I don't know what he would think. I bet he'd like it. I bet he'd be mystified at first. ... He'd probably call it the most hated show of the year," he laughed.

The exhibition, William Eggleston: Democratic Camera; Photographs and Video 1961—2008, opens at the Corcoran on Saturday and will run through Sept. 20.

Images courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust.

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