Stuff and the Surreal in William Eggleston’s Guide

William Eggleston’s Guide, in essence, begins with a singular photograph. The book is not bound by a paper jacket, nor is it wrapped in a picture. Instead, the cover feels and looks like faux leather (something almost-​but-​not-​quite real), a print seemingly pasted on. It is evocative of the old family album or yearbook with this mass-​produced feel. But it is not a precious art-​object; it does not draw one across a room to drag one’s fingers across the pages, thinking about the quality of the paper or the pleasure in some fine binding. It looks like it could, or would, fit well on a generic dark-​stained coffee table, or on some shelf adorned with family photographs. Yet, it is unlike a family album in the content itself — the cover is a well-​printed low-​angle shot, as if a child or dog had photographed it, elegantly framing a rusting, cheap but potentially cherished, tricycle against some suburban scene, the sky somehow attaining a lavender hue. Who would put anything but portraits of the family themselves on the cover of an album ?

The Eggleston photographs that are (now) revered are, of course, the photographs that were once reviled. Not only was Eggleston bringing vulgar color photographs into the vaunted, precarious, black-​and-​white realm of art (especially American art) photography — he was doing it with pictures of stuff. Objects, things, buildings, trash strewn about the ground. Sure, photography had had exhibitions and books centered around stuff — one cannot easily forget Weston’s peppers, Anna Atkin’s leaves, Irving Penn’s cigarette butts (contemporaneous, I guess), Walker Evans, or even W. Henry Fox Talbot’s The Open Door—but all of these sorts of photographs were aestheticized in a similar way. They were usually as much about the tonality in the pictures, the quality of the light, and the quality of the printing as they were the other art-​aspects. And this is, somewhat, where Eggleston starts : a closed door, beautiful shadows sprinkled across the scene, gorgeous flowers sprouting from a wicker basket. But, it is a little sloppy with slanted verticals and an awkwardly cutoff mailbox.

The book tours sunny suburbia and outside lands, then progressing from these gorgeous, sunny outside scenes to the interior of the home, that inside private space. From inside to night, to something debauched, a bit weird. At first there’s just a coyish boy, raising his arms above his head, hands clasped, in some kind of bored gesture — surrounded by luscious greens and oranges and a little red. A strange red sky flanking a darkened building, a car’s end illuminated by the streetlight. Then T.C. Boring, naked, scratching head in (feigned ?) confusion, “GOD” scrawled across the walls, more red now as some red bulb has harshly lit the scene. Next, red, turning brighter pink, and a path/road leading somewhere. Then a dirty, black, oven interior, the top cut oddly off. A man in orange light, with a gun and a pocket watch chain, some bedpan or bowl creeping from under the bed. An old woman, in a black doorway, distasteful green walls, some sort of aura of sickness. Three children, surreal, purple sky behind, the foreground a mix of that awful green and orange sodium lamps. A stump. A man looking sad on a motel bed, the ceiling and floor contracting into him, forcing our eye at his face no matter where we try to look, the florescent light from the bathroom beckoning us into that depth, wondering what more grossity lurks. Then, finally, a child’s jacket hung over a grimy crib in a room with the dirtiest walls you’ve seen since Riis.

Now, stroll back through the book. The sunny, bright days and classic layout (of singular photograph on the right page, big white borders giving the image room to breathe) are suddenly a conceit, serving to distract from something darker or more surreal. These were not just aestheticized images reveling in good light and deep, persuasive, pleasurable color tones. This does not feel so much like the family album the cover and typography suggest, but rather the scrapbook of something more insidious. The beautiful coat of the dog (19) has hidden the stray drinking from a dirty puddle. The picture of the white man in the suite, and the black man standing behind him, (31) though now perhaps more familiar to us as a potential picture for race tensions/relations in the south, is uncovered more brutally, made more obvious upon the book’s second reading. Before it might have been beautifully about this place, the autumn leaves making a carpet on the ground, the open car door feeling spontaneous, the bayou and buildings lurking in the background (again, beckoning). The next photograph, of the man in the cemetery, feels more sinister, somehow more about death than it did before. Then the beautiful, dead grass (and child in the shadows). The later sequence of the woman (and her legs), sitting on the curb with a suburban backdrop (with trees now barren and leaves cleaned up), followed by the man and the Air Force rocket can be read again, as some sort of classic phallic allusion (especially with the rain puddles surrounding it, now obscenely) — these two images synthesizing into sexual desire. Then, another scene of a cemetery (a beautiful statue against a beautiful sky, filled with puffy cumulous clouds). Next, the picture that changes the most for me — a child, laying on the ground. It could first be read as simply a picture of a child, sunset approaching, tired from a day of play, asleep or having tripped. Something innocent like that. Now, the child’s body looks lifeless. It doesn’t look like a sleeping pose (45). The pictures of the bottles, seemingly dumped on the ground, (59) has more violence to it. They do not look placed so much as thrown. The rust in the cover image, also on page 81, is more obvious. Maybe there is now a sense of the tricycle having been abandoned to the elements, rather than loved for too long and ridden too hard. (There is also, in essence, a section on childhood here — yet it is a section preceded by a phallic gesture, then a cemetery, and which opens with a lifeless-​seeming child.) Once it wanders back inside, you notice the shower is grimier. The food looks less appetizing. And so on.

These snapshot scenes are still about their place, but the design and flow of the book make the elusive surrealness of them easier to see. Even though there are only two photographs depicting people of color, there is a sense of racial tension in the book. None of the scenes are truly idyllic, as there is always something lurking in them somewhere, at the very least in their snapshotty nature — the technical sloppiness of their framing, if not in their composition, use of color, or light (ignoring the flash pictures) — or in the unnerving sense that something is off. This is not an idealized American South or Memphis. There is trash and racism and poverty and a violence and obscene sexuality. This is not a tourist guide, but a warning that things are depraved and fucked up, as they might be anywhere else, but with a distinct perspective and a uniqueness of the situation, of the place. A sense that everything needed to be photographed, and presented. And though Eggleston is, again, revered and renowned for his pictures of stuff, it is the photographs of people that are most jarring to me. The portrait of T.C. Boring on 94, inside and naked, is perhaps the most powerful as it seems to betray the underlying upset of the book — some sense of confusion, of not knowing what’s right, of needing to try to make sense by just throwing things on the wall (is God not the ultimate source of control and order ?). Maybe that’s too easy — it’s too easy to read human expressions, and the expressions on the people in this book are a little strange, or at least confused, at times. Is that too obvious ? They catch my eye more readily, though. They prevent me from drifting off, of getting lost in the clutter. But maybe they are not uniquely Eggleston enough, thus they don’t hang at the Whitney and they don’t dominate the book itself.