5x7, by William Eggleston (Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 2006)
by Aaron Schuman
Originally published in Hotshoe International, December/January 2007
A man walks into a bar. 3AM, Memphis, Tennessee. He carries with him a tripod, an antiquated camera, and is followed by Randall Lyon – a former military cryptologist, artist, musician and self-described hippy – who holds a small reflective umbrella with a photographic flash attached. Lyon would later reminisce, ‘Bill [was] always wearing a real severe suit. It was like he was the fucking count. Voluptuous and corrupt. It was unreal; what an image.’
In 1973, William Eggleston himself may have been an arresting site, yet it’s not his image, but those that he made during these late night escapades, which are celebrated in the new monograph, 5x7. On the cover, a woman – familiar to many through Eggleston’s iconic photograph of her lying in the summer sun, her fiery red hair blazing against green grass – writhes in darkness; a grieving Madonna at the foot of the cross, or a bacchante, perhaps, possessed by ecstatic abandon. It’s a fascinating picture, full of mystery, intensity and metaphoric potential. But to devotees of this particular photographer, what is at first most startling about the image is one thing; it’s in black-and-white.
Over the years, William Eggleston has certainly become royalty within the photographic world, ‘voluptuous and corrupt’ as ever, and particularly venerated for his pioneering efforts and profound influence within the field of colour photography. 5x7 includes a number of ‘classic Egglestons’ – colour photographs we might expect from his early days, with richly saturated hues overwhelming the banality of the subject matter to create deeply moving and affective works of art. Along with a few urban landscapes and interiors, there are many such portraits, in which the sitters seem caught slightly off-guard. Amazingly, despite their Cuban heels, dated hairdos, shiny polyester shirts and loud, floral-print dresses, these photographs seem incredibly immediate – it’s if the subjects walked down the street, in front of Eggleston’s camera, and then onto the page just yesterday. But this immediacy becomes evermore powerful in the nightclub portraits, for which Eggleston initially used black-and-white in an attempt to mimic common studio portraiture of the time. Regardless of his intentionally amateurish efforts, we are still left with the intuitive structure of an Eggleston, even as the colour ebbs away from the faces of the clubs’ hipsters, bikers, students, lowlifes and sultry young women. More surprisingly, because the photographs can no longer rely upon their vibrant and vivid surfaces to convey meaning, they are transformed from incredibly rewarding yet slightly detached aesthetic experiments into the tenderest studies of very specific people. As Michael Almereyda observes in his accompanying essay, ‘Each person is seen, and celebrated, as an irrepressible individual…That is, Eggleston’s subjects may be drunk, stoned, or otherwise distracted, but they are convincingly caught in the act of being themselves.’
As well as being known as a master colorist, Eggleston has also been celebrated for his use of 35mm, and his exploitation of the naturalness and spontaneity - in both approach and effect – that the handheld camera allows. Therefore, as the title suggests, 5x7 is also astonishing in that it presents work made by Eggleston with equipment that carries with it a number of very different challenges. In recent years, large-format photography has experienced a massive resurgence, gaining a reputation as the format used by the most ‘serious’ of photographers. Moreover, both the time-consuming nature and perceived ‘seriousness’ of such a camera has led many photographers towards quite a strict photographic approach, which encourages formality, exacting structure and rigorous deliberation. But what is most impressive in 5x7, particularly in the nightclub project, is the dexterity and spontaneity with which Eggleston manages to work with such bulky machinery. Apart from the staggering clarity of the images – reproduced so beautifully by Twin Palms that each page could literally be cut out and framed – it is difficult to see any discrepancy between this work and the photographer’s most immediate, most iconic, most insightful and most confidently impulsive 35mm photographs.
The fact that Eggleston can mine so deeply into his back-catalogue and still present some of the most fresh and exciting work within contemporary photography is a true testament to his place in the photographic canon. Perhaps it seems strange that these photographs didn’t surface earlier, but maybe Eggleston and others understood it could not have been fully appreciated until now. For as he recounts in an interview with Michael Almereyda, he did, at one point, present the 5x7 black-and-white, nightclub series to John Szarkowski – the curator responsible for his canonization, being the first to crown him king of colour:
William Eggleston: I said 'Have you ever seen anything like this before?’ And he said, 'No.'
Michael Almereyda: That's all he said.
William Eggleston: I thought that was a lot.