Color photography, once thought of as the crass, poor cousin of the more aesthetically pleasing monochrome, is now firmly established as a valid art form. We have William Eggleston and his vivid images of rural America to thank for that.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1939, Eggleston returned there after stretches in Mississippi, and has lived there ever since. It is these environs that Eggleston has consistently drawn upon for his iconic imagery of otherwise overlooked aspects of southern rural life.
After taking up black-and-white photography in the early 1960s, by the end of the decade Eggleston was one of the first fine-art photographers to work solely in color. His early 1970s discovery of the dye-transfer process — usually the reserve of advertising and other commercial work — allowed him fine control over his work and the ability to create rich, brilliant colors.
During this decade his work began to garner interest in the art world, resulting in a 1976 exhibition at MOMA — the influential New York museum’s first-ever solo show of a color photographer’s work.
“William Eggleston: Paris-Kyoto,” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art shows the results of two commissions by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. Despite its title, the exhibition also includes some of the photographer’s defining work taken from “William Eggleston’s Guide,” the book that accompanied his MOMA show.
A sense of loneliness and isolation, similar at times to the paintings of Edward Hopper, permeate many of these images — a single parked car outside a suburban home or a lone dog in a dusty rural yard. A disturbing undercurrent of threat or danger runs through some of his most intriguing images, such as that of a man perched on the edge of a bed, next to a folded patchwork quilt, a pistol loosely held in his hand.
Eggleston’s images are sometimes compared to the films of David Lynch, and it’s not difficult to imagine them in sequence like a film’s storyboard. A car in front of a lake, driver-seat door left open as from a hurried exit: Just what are the two men — one in a white lab coat, as if from a hospital — pensively looking off-frame at ? We may never find out, but the power of the image is such that we are left wondering for a long time.
These photographs are arguably the most arresting, but the success of the exhibition rests on how Eggleston brings his particular vision to the very different cities of Paris and Kyoto.
The first few images in the Paris section, which opens the exhibition, glow with a healthier, more Mediterranean palette than the garish hues of much of his Mississippi work. This penchant, however, is later given free rein in the green neon lights reflected in a puddle of a Parisian street or the lurid green plastic of street construction-site panels topped by the vivid red of a row of rooftops.
Anywhere he travels, Eggleston seems drawn to peeling and layered posters, street signs, graffiti, worn-out furniture and discarded toys — the overlooked detritus of a modern lifestyle we take for granted. The romantic black-and-white Paris of Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier-Bresson is not for him. His Paris is a sunlit polythene bag, filled with discarded yellow cups from a fast-food joint — surprisingly vibrant, even beautiful, when captured by his lens.
There are naysayers — those who cannot, or perhaps refuse to, see beauty in Eggleston’s work. And it is true that not every image lives up to the same standard: Sometimes the ordinary simply remains so and the already beautiful (a row of lush green trees in the Kyoto section, for example) doesn’t necessarily translate into an interesting image. But at its best, an Eggleston image can transform fragments of the mundane into something approaching the glorious and help us see the world anew.
Just as Paris for Eggleston is not about the Sacre Couer or Arc de Triomphe, nothing as obvious as temples or shrines distract the photographer from the delivery trucks and signboards of Kyoto. Or from the back of a Kyoto house, the kind of building we would walk past without giving a glance to — here, a glass window with a delicate bird-and-flower design holds onto its last vestiges of dignity as a cracked wall slowly succumbs to the ravages of time.
Other images taken in the city include a lifesize model of a dog, sunlight falling through an open door onto a tiled floor, and a line of foldable wheelchairs outside a hospital.
“Paris-Kyoto” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs till Aug. 22; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon.; free shuttle bus (the BloomBUS) from Shinagawa Station on Sun. For more information, visit www.haramuseum.or.jp