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The Color of Memory

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Strange as it sounds today, there once was a time color photographs had no place in art museums. Not so long ago, color photographs were considered crass, suited only for advertising or snapshots, not the hallowed halls of high art. But that changed one day in 1976 when a young Southern photographer named William Eggleston was given an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where his deadpan color prints depicted the "new South" as it looked at the time.

It was a period when big shopping malls and exponentially expanding suburbs were reshaping the landscape, and Eggleston's sharp and ironic eye was there to record the "progress." His MOMA show helped revolutionize the role of color photography in art, and now that most of those same prints are on view at the Ogden Museum, we can see for ourselves what all the fuss was about. Actually, taking into account that color photos are no longer a rarity in museums, and that Eggleston's style back then was conservative compared to his later abstractions, these images, titled only according to location, seem more deadpan than ever. Yet they are interesting for any number of reasons.

Memphis, a straight-on view of a woman sitting on a raised curb next to a thick metal pipe wrapped in chains, is startling, though it's hard to say why. Maybe it's those deadly raptor eyes peering out from under the big bouffant hairdo, or maybe it's the contrast between the almost severely cut dress and the weirdly psychosexual appearance of the post and chains, like a Memphis version of those Tantric Hindu temple icons. She is a study in fire and ice, as if all the cumulative cultural complexes of the South had been rolled up in this one, brazenly repressed woman.

The human figures in the other prints are often no less enigmatic. In Huntsville, Alabama, a plump man in a business suit inspects what looks like a huge bomb with little wings. Jackson, Mississippi depicts a tattooed, long-haired youth sitting in the back of a car with a new license plate next to him on seat, eyes focused straight ahead on some imaginary horizon; in Morton, Mississippi, a white-haired old man in black framed glasses absentmindedly points a pistol at his unmade bed as he talks, eyes narrowed as if immersed in some plaintive polemic reverie. It is all surreal, like a good-old-boy version of a James Joyce or Dylan Thomas narrative, but it is the empty pictures, the ones without figures, that may be the most haunting of all.

In Southern Environs of Memphis a vintage 1950s Buick sits fat and proud in front of a new suburban house. Across the street empty, undeveloped acreage rolls on for miles under one of those luminous grey, Southern winter skies, and here the spirit of the land still resonates with a kind of eloquent stillness, a rare moment in time before the bulldozers come in and pave it over for good. Similarly, an empty swimming pool surrounded by a hurricane wire fence in Tallahatchee County, Mississippi, speaks eloquently of those who are not splashing around in that Guantanamo-like compound. And the dinner table set for one, with its plate of ham and greens, Coke in a glass and butter on a silver dish in Sumner County, Mississippi, somehow implies a dense and yeasty narrative like a loose thread from the fabric of Southern fiction. But most of these images focus on the banal peripheries of Southern life where crusty old traditions start to crumble under the weight of suburban sprawl, where the simulacrum of Col. Sanders competes for attention with arch rival Ronald McDonald. And it must have been those pop touches that helped Eggleston's color work to be accepted as an inevitable reflection of the times.

On some nearby walls at the Ogden, a series of prints by Robert Rauschenberg amply illustrates his own evolution from abstract expressionism to pop, just as some adjacent prints by Jasper Johns reveal similar dichotomies between the family, the land and the incessant intrusions of commerce. As sons of the South who defined the look of pop early on, their vision helped set the stage for all the Warhols, Lichtensteins and Egglestons who followed in their footsteps.

New South: William Eggleston's Memphis is - inexplicably startling, a study in fire and ice.
  • New South: William Eggleston's Memphis is inexplicably startling, a study in fire and ice.

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