Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Eggleston Exhibit Makes Quite A Colorful Impression

Art Review

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008
Art Institute of Chicago
February 27-May 23, 2010

Think about any photographs you've ever seen in art museums or high end galleries. Most, if not all, are undoubtedly in black & white.

Chances are, any you've seen in color are by--or because of--William Eggleston.

Eggleston, of whom I was previously ignorant, is the subject of an excellent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago called Democratic Camera, which calls him not only a pioneer of color art photography but "one of the most influential American artists of the last 100 years."

Eggleston's Wikipedia entry similarly states that the Mississippi-bred photographer born in 1939 "is widely credited with securing recognition for color photography as a legitimate artistic medium to display in art galleries"

With the 47-year-span of the exhibition, Eggleston's images showcase a variety of subject matter, but he predominantly captured the American South, with an eye for portraying people and places a bit beyond the mainstream, or with an offbeat-yet-evocative quality. His prints are highly saturated, the result of utilizing dye imbibition (a.k.a. dye transfer) printing, "a continuous-tone color photographic printing process popularized by Kodak," which discontinued making all materials for the process in 1994.

Eggleston's early work was in black & white, and some B/W prints are included in the exhibition, but he switched almost exclusively to color in the late '60s and the vibrancy of his color images is comparatively astonishing, not just literally but figuratively as well.

Beyond several favorites that I'll include here, you can find much more of Eggleston's work through his comprehensive website, including photos from his Los Alamos series (the national laboratory served as an inspiration, but few pictures were actually taken there) and his commission to photograph Graceland in 1983, seven years after Elvis' death.

Especially with the recent passing of Alex Chilton, singer, songwriter and guitarist with the Box Tops, Big Star and on his own, I was intrigued to note that Eggleston photos adorn the album covers of Radio City by Big Star and Chilton's solo album Like Flies on Sherbert (sic).

The exhibition mentions that Eggleston was "an old friend of the Chilton family" and he even plays piano on a track on Big Star's third album, Third/Sister Lovers. He also helped document the making of True Stories, David Byrne's film directing debut.

If you enjoy photography as an art form, this is really an exhibit that you should try to see, although as it only takes about 40 minutes to view, I suggest going on Thursday evening between 5:00-8:00pm, when museum entry is free.

In the past I've been quite critical of Art Institute's new Modern Wing, in which the Eggleston exhibit is housed. Although the building is quite striking, inside and out, I've been rather disappointed with the quality of the collection--except for some pieces moved to the third floor from the main building--and until now, the exhibitions I've seen. Especially given the resultant leap of general admission to $18, the Modern Wing has so far felt largely unnecessary and hard to justify.

As such, I didn't rush to see the Eggleston exhibit when it opened in February, but when visiting the Matisse exhibit, I really liked what I saw in the Eggleston catalog in the gift shop. Fortunate to have a friend whose membership allows me to get in as a guest, I didn't have to pony up $18 for the first exhibit that has made a visit to the Modern Wing truly worthwhile.

Below are several Eggleston photos, from his website, all of which were included in the exhibition.

I think the above photo, which shoots outward from behind Graceland's entry gate and slyly captures the Souvenirs sign across the street (at left) is quite brilliant.

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