The election of Barack Obama reminds us how cracked and crazy the presumption of white exceptionalism in America is. Its epitaph can be found in the career retrospective of William Eggleston on view at the Whitney Museum.
Eggleston is a poet of the downbeat and desultory. His vision begins and ends with the copious amount of booze and drugs he has consumed. This kind of addiction mandates a bleak vision of the world, in which everything is stripped away for need of a fix.
Each of Eggleston’s down-and-out subjects is merely a mirror of the photographer’s own desperation. The sophisticated New Yorkers who discovered and championed Eggleston for his washed out colors and depressive randomness probably never realized that there is a richer world to be had in the American South beyond Eggleston’s limited vision, whether it’s black folk fishing off the piers in Mobile, Charlie Rich tinkling the ivories in a Beale Street dive, or James Meredith marching in Mississippi.
Instead, there is a redundant sameness to Eggleston’s concerns, whether they be Coca-Cola signs, dog-walking barefoot boys or severe, lemon-sucking women in black frocks. Put his work beside the most downbeat photos of Helen Levitt, Gary Winogrand or Diane Arbus and marvel at the far greater range of human emotion and surprise in their work compared to Eggleston’s. Lisette Model is a veritable carnival by comparison.
What sums up this show for me is one picture of some naked loser on a divan, his dick sticking out of his pubic bush, two muskets attached above him to the wall. This encapsulates the limits of Egglstons’s rancid vision, echoed in the abandoned objects, like bicycles and whiskey bottles, he cherishes with his lens.
People, to Eggleston, are nothing more than these abandoned objects, junk beside the road on the journey to his next drink or fix. Thanks to Barack Obama and the people who voted for him, that bleak, false vision of America is gone forever.
"William Eggleston: Democratic Camera: Photographs and Video, 1961-2008," Nov. 7, 2008-Jan. 25, 2009, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).