A body of William Eggleston’s influential color photography goes on view at the Met.
“William Eggleston: Los Alamos,” a current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened on Valentine’s Day, and appropriately so—“Los Alamos,” the vast body of work the photographer created between 1965 and 1974, is in many ways a love letter to the American vernacular and the process of shooting in color. The show, which runs through May 18, puts on view 75 dye-transfer prints from color transparencies, including the first color photo Eggleston ever took—Untitled, Memphis (1965), the famous image of a well-coifed young clerk pushing shopping carts outside a grocery store. The prints were gifted to the museum by Jade Lau, and this show marks the first time the full series hits walls in New York City.
Eggleston, who was born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1939, still calls the Mississippi Delta home today. Undoubtedly he has a special finesse with this region—look no further than the photograph described above, countless photos in the series, or his out-of-print paperback “Elvis at Graceland”—but what makes “Los Alamos” so special is its broader view of the country; the show includes studies captured both at home and on the road. Eggleston went on numerous road trips during this period with curator Walter Hopps and actor-director-photographer Dennis Hopper. The young trio explored New Orleans, New Mexico, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and beyond. American culture reflects a long-held interest in journeys, from Huckleberry Finn to On the Road, but when Eggleston and company were traveling, the American road movie exploded as a genre. The years between 1965 and 1974 saw the release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969, directed by Hopper), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Badlands (1973), and many others of both the A and B variety. Seeing the country from a car window, filling up in some unfamiliar gas station, eating at the local diner, drinking at the local bar, taking in the local color, causing some trouble, and recording the landmarks and landscapes became the formula for a new type of Homeric epic set on America’s highways and back roads rather than the Peloponnese.
“Los Alamos” is unquestionably the most seminal photographic series following this paradigm, with cars, gas pumps, Coca Cola bottles, signage, and people dotting the American landscape in vivid, sumptuous color. Louisiana (circa 1971–74, dye-transfer print) depicts a rusted gas station soaked in rain. In Santa Monica (circa 1974, dye-transfer print) a black family poses (but not for Eggleston) in between the front end of a car and the seafoam-green ocean. Mississippi (circa 1971–74, dye-transfer print) boasts a sign reading “Minnows 2¢ ea.” in bold red letters that is nestled on a strip of patchy grass off the side of the road. Arkansas (circa 1971–74) shows a painted, cut-out wooden sign of a clean-cut, white family kneeling at a church pew; shot at an upward angle, the sign’s characters seem to be floating in mid-air. Baton Rouge (circa 1971–74, dye-transfer print) pictures a door thickly upholstered with the image of a cocktail glass. Eggleston even named the series “Los Alamos” while he was on the road, driving past the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1973. Commenting on the facility, where the United States developed atomic weapons, Eggleston told Hopps, “You know, I’d like to have a secret lab like that myself.”
In the series, it’s possible to see much of the art-historical canon that came before it, from Modernist photography, the work of Walker Evans and the WPA artists, the street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Pop Art. In line with the latter, Eggleston was one of the first fine art photographers to co-opt the dye-transfer color process from commercial photographers who used it for advertising and product photography. But for present-day viewers, especially those who didn’t live through the ’60s or ’70s, it smacks of what has long passed. Malls, big-box stores, and now the Internet have laid waste to many of the small businesses captured in “Los Alamos,” and with them have gone the unique flourishes of the mom-and-pop store. Today, pieces of Americana, like the signs and ornaments in Eggleston’s photographs, are sold like works of art in their own right, while countless examples likely languished in the garbage years ago. The series also serves as a reminder of things that still fester. The Mississippi area seen through Eggleston’s camera set the scene for the civil rights movement, but decades later our country still faces incidents of hatred and racial inequality, and the South still deals with poverty.
Eggleston famously said that his photographs were “part of a novel I’m doing,” and indeed they read like scenes or chapters from an unfolding narrative. En route to New Orleans (circa 1971–74, dye transfer print), which depicts a setting inside an airplane, feels like a prompt for a story of its own—it’s full of potential energy, but it also captures the feeling of being trapped in the air. In it, an elegant hand stirs an effervescent drink, while clouds and sky watch through the window. The drink’s reflection radiates from the gray tray table as if the sun had been trapped in a glass. The image is iconic, and countless layman photographers have tried to recreate it while traveling via aircraft—just check Instagram—or better yet, a recent ad campaign by the luxury skincare company Crème de la Mer. Try as they might, none of the imitators can get it quite right, likely because they haven’t come from where Eggleston came from and they’re not going where he was going.
In the wall text of the show, Eggleston is quoted as saying, “Often people ask me what I am photographing. It’s a hard question to answer. And the best I have come up with is I just say ‘life today.’ I don’t know if they believe me or not. Or what that means.”
By Sarah E. Fensom