alan little’s weblog


14th April 2009 permanent link

I decided I needed to broaden my photographic perspectives, and a friend of my wife who was visiting us noticed that the Haus der Kunst has a show at the moment by William Eggleston. This seemed like the ideal opportunity: Eggleston is a very famous and much admired American photographer and not a Magnum photojournalist. I’ve seen bits of his work in books before, not much, found it quite interesting. The pictures on the exhibition webpage were good. So off we went.

william eggleston, Haus der Kunst

And, hmm. Not for me. I can see why some people admire this stuff – there’s a kind of striving to look effortless and casual, taking pictures of nothing much, actually sneakily involving immaculate composition and superlative printing technique. Result: flashes of brilliance amidst a sea of “why did somebody bother exhibiting that?”

There’s a whole bunch of these “spontaneous”, “informal”, highly-rated-by-lots-of-people(*) American art photographers – Robert Frank(**), Gary Winogrand, Eggleston, Lee Friedlander – whose work I just don’t get. Clearly I’m too British, starchy and formal. (Joel Sternfeld, often spoken of in the same breath, I do very much get; he’s great.)

One of the things Eggleston is famous for, that museum curators still like to bang on about, is being one of the first people to do “serious” “art” photography in colour. So what? There’s a certain type of arts person still obsessed with fighting the New York art clique wars of their youth. Get over it. It was half a century ago; there’s no reason to care any more. It doesn’t matter what was controversial then; either the stuff is still interesting to look at on its own merits now, or it isn’t. And it very definitely is. It doesn’t speak to me, much, but I can see why it does to a lot of other people.

Eggleston himself clearly isn’t too hung up on particular media and technologies. Most of the major photographic printing techniques of the last half century are here. In the sixties and seventies he was evidently a big fan of the horrifically complex, obscure and expensive dye transfer process. There are lots of conventional colour and black & white prints, and – some of the most interesting pictures in the show, for me – some big, recent inkjet and Lightjet digital prints of older negatives, both colour and black & white. A couple of b&w portraits – not at all the sort of thing Eggleston is famous for – impress me very much indeed.

In the interest of further thwarting my perspective-broadening, the Versicherungskammer Bayern’s next exhibition after Magnum’s First is, once again, Magnum founder George Rodger. I could always not go – in the interests of avoiding having my perspectives kept narrow. But I think I most probably will.

(*) Michael Blowhard, for whose opinions I have a great deal of respect, wrote here about his admiration for Lee Friedlander.

(**) Not American, but famous mainly for photographs of America and generally said to be hugely influential for/by lots of famous American photographers.

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