The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston

June 23 – September 3.

 

The Mennello Museum of American Art presents the transcendental work of William Eggleston. Please join us for the opening reception on June 23, 2017. Learn more.

The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston is guest curated by American novelist, Megan Abbott, and includes 36 color and black-and-white photographs from the University of Mississippi Museum’s remarkable permanent collection, including some photos never before exhibited.

William Eggleston, a renowned American photographer, is acclaimed for elevating color photography and transforming ordinary scenes into fine art. Through the eye of Eggleston, nothing is ordinary, despite his photographs’ apparent depiction of ordinary things and ordinary people doing ordinary things.  Eggleston once said, “I am at war with the obvious,” a phrase curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art thought apt enough to use as the title for a 2013 exhibition of his photographs from their permanent collection

A Memphis native, Eggleston acquired his first camera in 1957 at age 18. During his time studying art at Ole Miss, his interest in photography grew. He soon began to experiment with color negative film. Today, Eggleston is a world-renowned innovator of color photography, transforming ordinary scenes into fine art.

The exhibition is organized by the University of Mississippi Museum, who owes its vast collection of Eggleston photographs to the generosity of Dr. William R. Ferris, scholar, author and founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi who personally donated his collection to Ole Miss. Ferris, a photographer and longtime friend of Eggleston, describes him as “the greatest living color photographer.”  “He is the Picasso or Faulkner of what he does.” Ferris continues, “This exhibit allows everyone to know his work, which is part of the legacy of Ole Miss.”  Michael Glover, art critic for the British newspaper The Independent, agrees. His review of the 2013 opening of the permanent Eggleston installation at the Tate Modern was headlined, “Genius in colour: Why William Eggleston is the world’s greatest photographer.”

Greatest or not, art critics agree that Eggleston’s work has shaped art photography since 1976, when the Museum of Modern Art presented the now famous exhibition William Eggleston’s Guide, its first-ever solo exhibition of color photography.  Since that watershed exhibit, Eggleston’s work has influenced art photography and even filmmaking. Film directors citing his influence include John Huston, Gus Van Sant, Joel and Ethan Cohen and David Lynch.

It was Lynch who brought Eggleston to the attention of the exhibition’s guest curator, American novelist Megan Abbott, University of Mississippi’s 2013-2014 John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence and an Edgar Award-winner.  Abbott has drawn her own inspiration from his photos for many of her novels. She helped choose the pieces for the exhibit, which capture scenes from more than two decades.  “To me, his photographs evoke entire worlds, not worlds we merely see, but worlds we feel, smell, touch,” she said. “When you look long enough at his photographs, like the gorgeous, lonely blue parking lot chosen as one of the exhibit’s central images, you get lost in it. You’re in another place.”  Acclaimed photographer, first cousin and Eggleston protégé Maude Schulyer Clay served as consulting adviser for the exhibit. In 2015, German photo book publisher Steidl produced a collection of Clay’s portraits titled Mississippi History. Steidl discovered her photographs while working with Eggleston on the multi-volume set Chrome (2011) and Los Alamos Revisited (2012).

Eggleston’s published books and portfolios, include Los Alamos (actually completed in 1974, before the publication of the Guide) the massive Election Eve (1976; a portfolio of photographs taken around Plains, Georgia before that year’s presidential election); The Morals of Vision (1978); Flowers (1978); Wedgwood Blue (1979); Seven (1979); Troubled Waters (1980); and The Louisiana Project (1980). William Eggleston’s Graceland (1984) is a series of commissioned photographs of Elvis Presley’s Graceland, depicting the singer’s home as an airless, windowless tomb in custom-made bad taste. Other series include The Democratic Forest (1989), Faulkner’s Mississippi (1990), and Ancient and Modern (1992).  In 2016, The Democratic Forest was presented in a solo exhibition at David Zwiner, New York with a new publication.

Of his 2013 Metropolitan Museum exhibition, At War with the Obvious, New York Times critic Ken Johnson writes “But photographs like Mr. Eggleston’s are not like movie images, which come in linear sequences, establishing explanatory narratives around scenes that would be mysterious, were they viewed in isolation.  There is no before and after here, so the photographs remain provocatively enigmatic, which accounts for much of their poetic resonance.  His pictures tease the mind, eliciting associations and possible meanings that swirl around them like bugs around a light bulb.”

In 2016, The New York Times Style Magazine featured Eggleston on the cover of the “Greats” edition, photographed by famed contemporary photographer Wolfgang Tillmans.  Writer Augusten Burroughs wrote “A visit with the American Master of color photography reveals him to be every bit as brilliant, confounding and heartbreakingly soulful as the pictures he makes.”

A clear spring rises somewhere on the home place, for the human strain begins there for Mr. Eggleston, and we see it in what follows: it turns into a river that runs through, or underneath, every place succeeding it.  Whatever is done to block it or stop its flow, it surfaces again.  Pure human nature proves itself in likely or unlikely places.

—Eudora Welty

William Eggleston, born in 1939 currently lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston is organized by the University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses with exhibition support provided by the Friends of the Museum. Additional support by Dr. William R. Ferris and the Eggleston Artistic Trust.

Art credit:
William Eggleston, Untitled, 1973, color photograph.
Collection of the University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses, gift of Dr. William R. Ferris.