William Eggleston’s 1976 debut at MoMA wasn’t exactly an immediate hit. A number of reviewers panned the artist’s unconventional Kodachrome photos of the American South, and a New York Times critic called the work “perfectly banal” and “perfectly boring.” But the show — only the museum’s third to feature color photography — did much to legitimize color photography as a fine art medium, and established Eggleston as the standard-bearer for a new kind of picture making.
William Eggleston: The Outlands, Selected Works (David Zwirner Books, 2022) presents nearly 100 previously unseen photos from this influential, once controversial body of work. The images — taken between 1969 and 1974 as Eggleston roamed through his native Tennessee and the surrounding areas by car — are printed in lush, full color on large, open spreads. Collectively, they grant viewers an expanded view of how Eggleston developed the signature visual language that would echo throughout his career.
Full of cars, gas stations, convenience stores, and highways, the photos in The Outlands carry clear signs of an American road trip. Here Eggleston deals with distance but in unexpected ways: Rather than focusing on speed and motion, the artist hones in on the moments when his journey slows down and stops. His carefully composed pictures are often shot from parking lots, hotel rooms, sidewalks, and even car repair shops, interstitial places where the traveler pauses and immerses themselves, however briefly, in an unfamiliar environment.
But not everything is foreign, passing territory. Perhaps because it was edited by William Eggleston III, the artist’s son, the book features several photos of Rosa, the elder Eggleston’s wife. In the photo that opens the book, for example, she walks from a Texaco gas station toward the camera holding two beverages and an affectionate if not slightly exasperated expression. In another snap, Rosa’s delicate, red-sandaled feet stretch out of the passenger side door of their parked car as a chicken walks by. These tender images offer a more personal glimpse into Eggleston’s process, and defy the usual narratives around the lone male artist who must leave his family behind in order to create his work.
In 1994, Eggleston declared that the American South was “unrecognizable” compared to the way it was when he photographed it 20 years earlier. But barring the different cars and clothes, much of the imagery and feeling in his pictures of small towns and their surrounding countryside resonate strongly with today’s rural America. Beyond the faded signs and empty streets, there’s also a subtle but unmissable connection to elements of our current political tensions: A 1956 Dodge Suburban that dominates the frame in one photo sports a bumper sticker that reads, “REGISTER COMMUNISTS, NOT OUR FIREARMS!” One could easily see such a sticker today, at least in the South.
A quiet sense of humor and criticism emerges from Eggleston’s work with words. He makes sharp commentaries on American life, especially our insatiable need for consumption, by collecting and condensing disparate texts from billboards, gravestones, and political posters. In one picture, crowded signs for Coca Cola, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Tiger Oil Co. overlap and run into each other, as if each liquid was interchangeable. In another, empty cans litter the ground beneath a brick wall painted with splashy advertisements for beer and soda. Once again, Eggleston’s images seem prescient of today’s debates. For this reason, the more of his work we see, the better.
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