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William Eggleston’s 5×7

After roaming around San Francisco one day last year, photographing with a friend, we went to see a one-time-only screening of William Eggleston’s “Stranded in Canton“. It was the kind of experience that leaves you scratching your head, in the best possible way. Eggleston’s experiment (filmed on a PortaPak in 1973) was so ahead of its time it almost didn’t exist.

Fittingly, the film’s settled into memory as more of a hazy dream than a movie. There’s no story, no plot, no traditional anything - but it’s loaded with characters: real people playing themselves, as they might have, drunk and singing while an observant friend glided around them with an infrared video camera in 1973.

What I didn’t know was that Eggleston was making portraits with a 5×7 view camera around the same time, with help from one of his Canton friends on strobe patrol. Beautifully printed in “5×7” from Twin Palms Publishing, the 57 plates in the book speak distinctly where Canton mostly mumbles.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

Referred to in Michael Almereyda’s expert essay as “the Nightclub pictures”, the portraits do more than describe 70s kitsch, they show what can happen when a photographer forces himself to step outside of his traditional working methods to photograph what’s familiar in an entirely new way.

Like most great work with big cameras, the portraits bely the complexity of their execution with simple, pictorial facts; a face, a feature, some fashion. And the fufillment of these facts sets the stage for a portrait that delivers more than your average picture. Meaning, these are extremely good portraits; in both style and expression, and they continue to yield surprises with each page flip. (Who’s the Chan Marshall doppleganger in Plate 10?)

As black and white pictures from a photographer well-known for his color work (the pictures were made well before Eggleston’s colorific MOMA debut in ‘76) they feel like cousins of Lee Friedlander’s color-saturated portraits of musicians, in reverse. But the book doesn’t rely on having “black and white portraits by a color photographer” as its bait. There are outside pictures and still-lifes and color shots as well, including a few that have been previously published - and this one, of a familiar subject, Marcia Hare.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

More correctly, these aren’t your typical good-time party pics. They’re incisions — slices of clarity, moments from otherwise foggy evenings held still by the strobe and fixed to the unforgiving five-by-seven frame. However captured, the portraits are never cold. Their clarity helps, but it’s Eggleston’s attenuation to what makes a moment perfect that makes the pictures come alive.

When Eggleston’s discussed, people often overlook the Cartier-Bresson connection. Even when photographing artchitecturally, Eggleston appears to be as much about the moment as anything else. (Why take two? Get it right the first time…) And it’s this taste for what’s passing (even if it’s stationary) that comes into clear view in 5×7.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

Pictures can be anything, really, and good pictures can be everything else and all of the above. Or not. When I look at the Nightclub pictures, they seem to be a way for a photographer to say, “this is life, and this is how we lived it, and here’s who these people are and what they looked like and how we liked to spend our time.” It is what it is what it is. Simple, really. Good enough for a box under the bed.

Fortunately the pictures have been dusted-off and held-up in the good light of this book, so we can all look, not just at the wallpaper details in the background, or at the technique that went into such scans, but that we can see through the lens itself, as if Eggleston and the camera and the guy with the strobe weren’t even there.

William Eggleston's 5x7
© William Eggleston, from 5×7

It’s not an easy thing to take pictures that successfully fix a passing world. And it’s harder still to make photographs of people who are looking directly at the camera - and end-up with pictures that don’t feel like Pictures.

For this viewer, Eggleston’s 5×7 leaves me as if I were approaching a building with a screened front door that’s been left open. There’s music’s inside and a room full of friends — an extra chair at their table. A welcoming.

Thanks to Twin Palms Publishing for facilitating this review. More reviews on 2point8, and more Eggleston.

Tag: Reviews