London 11.10.16

A trip with Bath Spa Uni to see the Eggleston exhibition at the NPG. I have to confess that although I knew of Eggleston through his oeuvre of vernacular photography – his extraordinary images of the ordinary – I was less familiar with his portraiture so was excited to see this show. 

I have become very familiar with – and a big fan of – the work of the British photographer Martin Parr, and it’s always curious to find a meta-hero. I found myself immediately struck by how much Eggleston’s work echoed Parr’s, but constantly had to remind myself that, of course, the American’s work, although ongoing (Eggleston is now 77) predates and precursors Parr’s by a couple of decades. 

It would be something of a cliché to say that the thing that immediately strikes you on entering this show is the use of colour – for it is his pioneering use of colour film as an artistic medium that Eggleston is perhaps best known – but it is not. The first images to arrest you on walking into the gallery are in black and white. This is surely no coincidence – the reasoning for this is, of course, open to speculation – I would suggest that black and white somehow slows us down; we enter the gallery (any gallery) from a blaze of colour from both primary (the actual world around us) and secondary (the constant blaze of imagery) sources, so perhaps we are all, in a sense, colour blind – we just don’t see it any more; or at least if we do, we are so inured to it as to be desensitised to its impact. Perhaps black and white images serve to tell us that Eggleston is to be taken seriously, lest we were in any doubt.

It is, of course, impossible to look at the work of anyone else without also internally comparing it with similarities and parallels with ones own practice, and this show was no exception – the ego says ‘yes, this photograph is extraordinary and it puts me in mind of “x” photo that I have of my child/mother/friend etc.’ This voice is quickly answered by another saying ‘yes, but this photo is on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery and yours is still languishing in your file full of Velvia slides’. As always in art, context is, if not all, then certainly a good part of success, however that is to be defined. It is crucially important to look at these images (all images) in their chronological as well as their physical context. Indeed, the two are, I feel inextricably connected – perhaps Eggleston’s photographs would not have made it to the NPG had they been captured a couple of months ago – a glance at any social media site will reveal a candid snap of someone in a nightclub, which, it could be argued, is what a proportion of what is on display here represents. What makes these images extraordinary is – yes, the quintessence of a ‘type’ of person that most of us know, or at least think we know – but also when they were taken. They are all deeply perspicacious studies of certain facets of humanity and the human condition, but they are more than that because of when they were made, and it is crucial to view these pieces with one eye fixed on their location in time. Photography has this unique ability, and we should cherish that.

Eggleston, of course, had a wonderful eye for an image – a sense of the aforementioned quality of what it is to be human – but also a gift for showing the ironic, the playful and for making social comment simply by representation. And here is the parallel with Parr – both artists appear to be merely conduits for what is happening in the world around them – lightning rods perhaps for the bolts of human existence that we are all aware of but somehow do not see until the jolt of an unfamiliar context forces us to confront them. I noticed that one of the images in this show was a self portrait of him with a previous girlfriend, and I couldn’t help thinking that, like Parr, Eggleston is the sort of guy that you wouldn’t necessarily look at twice. Not in any way ugly, but- in the best possible way – ordinary. Perhaps this is an excellent qualification for being a documenter of the world around us – the ability to blend into it so that it carries on behaving as it would were we not spying on it. Eggleston himself said ‘nothing is more interesting than what’s around us’ – I’m taking this to mean that it is the observed, and not the observer that is worthy of scrutiny, and couldn’t agree more. Perhaps all those currently obsessed with documenting themselves and the minutiae of their lives through endless selfies and images of their latest meal etc might take heed of this. 

From the National Portrait Gallery I hopped on the tube from Leicester Square down to the Michael Hoppen Gallery to see the ‘Image as Question’ show. I had spotted this online a couple of days before the trip and it seemed like my kind of thing. A collection of images from a variety of sources subtitled ‘An Exhibition of Evidential Photography’. The show presents a broad spectrum of (amongst others) documentary, scientific, fashion and criminal photography whose common link is their original intention; the raison d’etre of all these images was not actually artistic – some have been made into art by post-capture manipulation, and indeed it could be strongly argued that they have all been made into art by virtue of being in an Art gallery (along with, I might cynically add, the concomitant inflation of perceived if not intrinsic value). Once again, context is all. 

I enjoyed the show – not least because of its variety but also because the inherent beauty in many of the images was precisely because of their lack of self-conciousness as ‘art’ objects. True, much of their appeal lies in an aesthetic quality that transcends their original, perhaps more prosaic, purpose; but to be encouraged to look at examples of what photography has been – the uses and purposes it has historically served – can only be helpful in my ongoing study of what photography might and can become. 

I also enjoyed the experience of seeing both shows back to back; the contrast of Eggleston – one man who knew (and knows) a great deal about the technique, art and science of photography against a collection of many who perhaps were utilising the medium for other intended ends was fascinating. Both shows purported that the protagonist(s) involved in their creation were and are somehow incidental – in Mark Boyle’s words ‘circuits of no importance’ – and were keen instead to focus on the phenomena of the world around us and its documentation. Although very different in their intent, Eggleston’s outcomes were, in their representation of the ‘ordinary’, strangely similar to the outcomes on display at the Hoppen Gallery.

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