Guest Contributor: Heidi Norton on Eggleston
Heidi Norton is a photographer and educator based in Chicago, IL.
“He has lived an interesting life. At 69, Eggleston has been married to his wife Rosa for 44 years and raised three children. But his definition of wedlock has been elastic enough to permit numerous girlfriends and affairs. He has been known to shoot indoors–guns, not just pictures. There have been various run-ins with the law. And over the years, he’s been the best of friends with Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. He’s also been one of the most original artists of your lifetime.”—Time Magazine, October 31, 2008
My classes have been buzzing with the name Eggleston for weeks. I teach Color Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago – the old school, analogue, c-print, darkroom Color Photography, with a machine I jokingly call the R2D2 (RA-4 color processor). I love teaching this class. To introduce a student to color photography, to help them see COLOR and perceive COLOR in the real world is like learning it myself all over again.
Every 16 weeks, at the start of the semester, I get to see photography anew and I do it with the help of William Eggleston. It’s the third week of the semester, and I’m lecturing on color light theory. I’m gently throwing around William Eggleston’s Guide and preaching about the laws of color photography. This book is my textbook and when I start to talk about Eggleston, my students look at me like I’m speaking in tongues – it’s so hard to contain my excitement for this man and his craft.
It just so happens that Eggleston’s retrospective show, William Eggleston: Democratic Camera just opened in the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago but, it was a few weeks prior that my excitement reached an all time high – I found out that Eggleston would make a rare public appearance; a book signing.
It was Feb 27th at 2:30 pm and Eggleston was not scheduled to show for another hour. The line ran the length of the new addition of the museum and wrapped around airport line dividers about four layers thick. The number of people there for the book signing was unbelievable. Standing in line I heard, “Eggleston is going to take a picture of me and I’m going to title it ‘Portrait by Eggleston’ ” and better yet, “I’m going to have Eggleston sign my arm and have it made into a tattoo.” All the sudden a woman behind me shouted, “Does ANYONE have an extra cigarette that I can have?” Oh it’s for Eggleston, of course! He smoked like a chimney in William Eggleston in the Real World. For a moment, I relish in the image of William Eggleston sitting next to the Seurat just puffing away, blowing smoke on A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Finally, it was my turn. My meeting with Eggleston was fuzzy – almost a blackout. He spoke in a baritone, seductive voice. He was gracious when I thanked him for his contribution to photography and for giving me the passion to teach his craft to so many other people. Viewing the works after meeting him was as much, if not more, of an amazing experience.
The show is divided into three main sections. The main gallery houses the old works- the ones we all know and love. While the “photography” gallery exhibits his more recent works from the late 80s to 2000 also included are collaborative images taken with musician and filmmaker David Byrne – still shots from the movie set True Stories (1986).
However, the work that most intrigued me is displayed in the corridor- large silver gelatin and pigment prints from the “5×7″ negatives. These are less known, but spectacular in that they look undeniably contemporary – a cross between Roe Etheridge and August Sanders. They have a constructed documentary aesthetic that makes you wonder where and how he took the images. Coupled with the audio-visual diary, Stranded in Canton one wonders about the level of artifice in the pieces.
All in all, the 100 plus dye imbibition prints are nothing short of mesmerizing and the 5×7 Negative series is far ahead of its time. This show is with out a doubt, a life changing experience.
William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961–2008 is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 23rd.
all images copyright William Eggleston