Art & Photography

William Eggleston: The Democratic Forest

Max Lakin reflects on the legacy of photographer William Eggleston, whose influence is still felt across pop culture today

When New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of William Eggleston’s photography in 1976, many people found themselves confused. Here were images of a lot of things, most of the sort that anyone might encounter a dozen times a day, but none, so far as anyone could tell, of art.

The images weren’t oblique or especially erudite or masked in folds of subterfuge — the expected indicators of art photography. Most egregiously, they were in colour. The New York Times called it “the most hated exhibition of the year.” One critic, among more florid descriptors, thought it “totally boring and perfectly banal.” He was, of course, completely correct.

An Eggleston photograph operates in the liminal spaces of living, the lulls in which much of the quiet stuff happens. As such, the first thing you notice is how familiar it is. Even if you’ve never been to Mississippi, or Memphis, or Kentucky, you can swear you’ve driven past that side of road, sat among that burger joint’s lacquered red tables, seen the back of that Cadillac. There’s an immediacy of understanding to an Eggleston photograph, which can make it easy to dismiss. But then something else happens. The familiar begins to look strange. There’s something almost imperceptibly skewed, as if in a Lynchian daydream.

© Eggleston Artistic Trust © The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston, published by Steidl
© Eggleston Artistic Trust © The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston, published by Steidl

Sometimes it’s the image’s content itself that jars: a boy perusing a firearms catalog, a handgun left casually on the nightstand among the morning’s spent cigarettes. But more often, these are images of fields, highways, gas stations, hardware stores—disquieting in their lusty, near-lurid chromaticism—lived-in places made alien terrain.

First published in 1989 by Doubleday (Jackie Onassis ordered 20,000 copies on the spot) The Democratic Forest was a slim, supposedly palatable exploration of this terrain. It was 150 intensely saturated images that received little recognition. Fifteen years on, audiences have mostly caught up with Eggleston, or at least figured out they should have been listening the first time.

Enter a reassessment of Democratic Forest, released by German publisherSteidl late last year, it now constitutes 10 volumes of more than 1,000 photographs drawn from a body of 12,000 pictures made by Eggleston in the 80s. 12,000 is the working scope, but one gets the feeling a real limit does not exist.

They form an almost biographical narrative, creating, as French literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote, “a history of looking.” It begins in Eggleston’s own Mississippi Delta and radiates out — a locus of American imagination formed by points like Pittsburgh and Boston, a Civil War battlefield in Tennessee and a book depository in Dallas.

Eggleston is often compared to William Faulkner in his evocation of the American South, but perhaps he’s closer to Dante, wending through the forest of a shared recent history, a Virgil for the McDonald’s set.

© Eggleston Artistic Trust © The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston, published by Steidl
© Eggleston Artistic Trust © The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston, published by Steidl

The wilful documentation of our daily movements is more or less expected now; we’re all photographers of our own minutiae, emboldened by an expanded vernacular of what counts as photography, helped along by Instagram. But Eggleston’s images prefigure the social media idiom, elevating the workaday into something noble, without special access.

In the book’s afterword, Eggleston alludes to the crystallising of his process:

“I was in Oxford, Mississippi, for a few days and I was driving out to Holly Springs on a back road, stopping here and there. It was the time of year when the landscape wasn’t yet green. I left the car and walked into the dead leaves off the road. It was one of those occasions when there was no picture there. It seemed like nothing, but of course there was something for someone out there. I started forcing myself to take pictures of the earth, where it had been eroded 30 or 40 feet from the road. There were a few weeds. I began to realise that soon I was taking some pretty good pictures, so I went further into the woods and up a little hill, and got well into an entire roll of film.

“Later, when I was having dinner with some friends, writers from around Oxford, or maybe at the bar of the Holiday Inn, someone said, ‘What have you been photographing here today, Eggleston?’

‘Well, I’ve been photographing democratically,’ I replied.

‘But what have you been taking pictures of?’

‘I’ve been outdoors, nowhere, in nothing.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, just woods and dirt, a little asphalt here and there.’”

It’s in this expansive nothingness that Eggleston moves, trafficking in vast swaths of the country that everyone sees but few notice. “He takes very ordinary situations and can create very powerful pictures out of almost nothing,” explained the photographer Martin Parr in a BBC documentary. “And therefore he is not relying particularly on the ultimate decorative thing like a nice sunset—or the incredible nostalgia that you will often see in contemporary practice. I would say he is kind of beyond that if you would like, he is almost photographing on the gap of everything else.”

The Democratic Forest and other works by Eggleston are available from Steidl