“I am at war with the obvious.”
“I am at war with the obvious.” Photographer William Eggleston wrote this in the afterword to the 1989 monograph The Democratic Forest, which was culled from 12,000 photographs he made in the ‘80s. The august publishing house Steidl continues its thorough survey of Eggleston’s career with a 10-volume set of this pivotal body of work and new single-volume selection. The slim edit is not quite as essential as the 1976 book William Eggleston’s Guide, which belongs in the library of anyone who cares about photography. But in many respects, this updated, abridged Forest improves upon the 1989 release.
It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when color photography was not accepted in the art world. Eggleston’s 1976 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was a crossroads in his career and broke fine art photography out of its black and white chains. The photographer’s shadow hangs over contemporary photography, whether as inspiration or reaction. His photos can be seen on album covers from Big Star (he even plays piano on the sessions for Third) to Jimmy Eat World, and last fall the now 78-year old artist released his first album of keyboard compositions.
The new Democratic Forest thus comes at a time of increased visibility and scrutiny for Eggleston. His work once seemed so daring in its elevation of mundane subject matter, but does it still hold up?
Revisiting the 1989 release of this material, one might have second thoughts. An introduction by Eudora Welty (which is tapped for epigraphs in the new book) takes a folksy and at times generic look at work that is sequenced much like an autobiography, starting with images of the Eggleston family’s bucolic ancestral land and progressing through scenes of urban life. It is in these urban scenes that we see the Eggleston vision so focused in the 1976 Guide: deep red hues depicting lonely roadside diners or the logo of some gas station blotting the commercial landscape of a highway strip. As Eggleston remarks in the afterword to the 1989 edition, the project title came to him as a perfect encapsulation of his democratic eye, observing any subject from high to low on an even keel, his lens the great leveler.
The sequencing in that 1989 vision does not stay completely free of judgement; from the stately forests of his home, his eye finds run-down street scenes and businesses that on the one hand define a quaint mythological Deep South and on the other hand indicate an impoverishment and alienation exacerbated by the general lack of human presence. But in the book’s early sections, the emphasis is too heavy on the scenic. If Eggleston is at his best when he finds something compelling in the most ordinary of subjects, certain of his landscapes are too ordinary and expected. The 1989 book ends with a few images of the Berlin Wall and a bird’s eye shot from an airplane, an on-the-nose and kind of obvious nod to the artist’s all-encompassing eye.
The new Democratic Forest is a much tighter and stronger edit and has surprisingly little overlap with the 1989 edition. A dense introduction by poet Alexander Nemerov is well-considered but overcorrects Welty’s generalities, operating on the conceit that Eggleston’s use of color marks him as a bit of a melancholy clown. Nemerov goes on to make more pertinent comparisons to Edward Hopper and David Lynch, but much of the pleasure and power of Eggleston lies in his mystery, and unlike Welty, Nemerov tries to explain too much.
After that slight textual misstep, the sequencing offers a wildly different narrative, beginning with an image of white overhead fan blades against a white ceiling (Big Star fans may recognize it from the cover to the band’s 1993 live reunion album). A series of intimate interiors follows, many bathed in a soft white light that shows a gentle side of the photographer. This is an old world, and as the scenes open up to show the landscape, it is (mostly) the Deep South, but the narrative is more personal and, perhaps counterintuitively, more democratic. In the original book, it was easy to see a judgement in the progression from the pure countryside to the disheveled city to the blighted highway, a movement that recalls a passage in Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb in which we see a series of line drawings depicting, first, a quiet country road, and several scathing panels later, a criss-cross of power lines and commercialized hell.
This Democratic Forest reserves judgement, but not entirely, and one of the images found in both the 1989 edition and the new book throws light on this. In the original book, an image of a commercial highway strip in its mess of auto-shop signs is backed by a dingy grey sky; the new edition corrects the color of the sky to a smoggy blue, a richer tone that doesn’t make it any more heavenly. Like many of the images that can be found in both editions, the Steidl printing is an improvement, but there is a curious exception: a portrait of Eggleston’s son Winston, which in the 1989 book features more shading and soft contrast, is too harsh in the new edition.
The 10-volume, $600 deluxe edition of this body of work was not available for preview, and photography fans with deep pockets will probably want to shell out for that. But the single-volume edit is highly recommended to collectors of more modest means. Even those who already have the 1989 edition will be fascinated by the significant differences in printing and selection.