Into the Forest (part 2)

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(This article is the second in a series of two. The first part can be found here.)

The first volume of The Democratic Forest was photographed using a different format, and it is intended to serve “as an overture.” (quoted from the introduction by co-editor Mark Holborn, vol. 1, p. 8) After the formal introduction, the journey (“geographical progression” – Holborn, ibid.) begins in volume 3, in Dallas, TX, and from there it moves to Pittsburgh, PA, and beyond. But it’s not all geographic. Further volumes dive into the pastoral (vol. 6), there are interiors (vol. 7), finally the forest itself (vol. 9)…

Whatever you want to make of the way Holborn and William Eggleston III organized the books, there would have to be some form of organization: books have a beginning and an end, and their makers have to take a viewer from one to the other. To present these hundreds and hundreds of photographs in random order, in just one impossibly thick volume, might have been the most radical gesture. But it would also stood in the way of it allowing most viewers access, because only the most dedicated ones might have the stomach to dive into what essentially would have been a completely unorganized mess.

The country Forest portrays, though, the US, is a mess. That’s what Eggleston makes very clear with his photographs. Of course, there are pleasant enough landscapes, even sometimes buildings (or cars). But usually, it’s a mess that is presented, and the only reason why you want to look at it is simply because with his camera the photographer transforms it into a large number of beautiful images. Addressing that transformation, in his (2015) introduction, Holborn addresses the artist’s history and how it had him arrive with these pictures. Eggleston, writes Holborn, realized “the possibility that everything that crossed his view was a worthy subject if he could apply the language with which to contain it.” (vol. 1, p. 7)

If that’s not photography, though – and not merely Eggleston specific, then I don’t know what photography is. My read is based on just two characters that form a word, “if”: “a worthy subject if he could apply the language with which to contain it” (ibid., my emphasis now). If a photographer can apply their language to something, if, in other words, they can make it their own, then, yes, they’re in business. In their business. Seen that way, what makes Eggleston stand out is not that he does what photographers do. Instead, it is the seemingly unlimited breadth of his vision, the taking for granted that anything, any piece of crap, can make for a good picture.It’s a profoundly American approach, establishing a democracy of everything.

But that’s also not quite correct. I don’t think that Eggleston photographed democratically, training his cameras at everything in equal manner. Instead, we see a photographer who it seems very familiar with his medium’s history, picking up – or adopting, or using – approaches used by those that came before him. Walker Evans already employed a very similar democracy of imagery (just look through American Photographs), and there are certainly echoes of the likes of Stephen Shore or Lee Friedlander here, to mention just two other photographers. In no way does this reduce Eggleston’s achievement. Instead, it places it into its proper context.

In line with the work produced by these other practitioners, here then lies the genius of Forest, and its own subversive power at the same time: the land, the US, is portrayed in all its glory (and lack thereof), in the most glorifying way possible. This clearly follows Evans’ and Frank’s directions in their respective books (especially Evans’). I’d even go a little further: Forest essentially is American Photographs Redux, albeit in an exploded, garishly colourful form.

Of course, this fact has long been made to disappear through the general acceptance and reception of this particular photographer: Eggleston as the ground breaker for colour, for this particular type of photography. Parts of that are very valid. But I’d like to not have the established perception of the work get in the way of re-appreciating, re-evaluating it. Not to do that would violate my understanding of what criticism ought to do (it’s not a critic’s role to be a hagiographer).

I want to go back now to that idea of the democracy of pictures. For a start, we’re really talking more about ideology here than about anything else. It is the idea that, of course, the way these very glorious American pictures were made was democratic. And I don’t buy that. Sorry. It’s true, Eggleston tore down visual hierarchies that were – and, let’s face it, often still are – well established. But that doesn’t make this way of photographing necessarily democratic per se. For a start, there are those visual connections to other practitioners.

Beyond those connections, we might note, for example, that in most of these pictures people are absent (unlike in Evans’ book). That’s just one example, this most curious exclusion of the people. Speaking of the inclusion of what is photographed, simply through Eggleston’s making of decisions, through him photographing this and not that, he was imposing a hierarchy, imposing his will onto what people can see (and what they can’t see). That’s simply not democratic. Art isn’t democratic (and that makes it great).

In some sense, the editors amplify Eggleston’s approach through the organization of the work. This becomes more obvious in some volumes than in others, making them curiously uneven. I guess you can’t help but pick up on larger themes, especially once you’re provided with some. Volume 6, for example, gives us “the pastoral,” and this volume falls mostly very flat for me. It could have been edited down to maybe 10 to 15 pictures, and it would still be flat. Looking through these photographs, I can’t escape the impression that ultimately, Eggleston didn’t have much of an interest in the landscapes or trees or flowers he photographed, other than possibly making a good picture.

In contrast, the volume following right after, “the interior,” is a lot more interesting. Here, the photographer is shown as tickling vastly more out of the interiors of the built environment, covering a much wider ground, producing a lot more interesting photographs. There just seemed to be more around that would trigger Eggleston’s instinct for making a good picture.

Volume 8, “the surface,” operates on the same visual level, maybe on an even higher one (ask me in one or two years when I have had a chance to look at all of this often enough). It is as if Eggleston really isn’t interested so much in what is around, but rather in what is around because it was put there by someone else, with him picking up on how much people cared (or – usually? – didn’t). Seen that way, Forest is not so much a portrait of the country in the pictures, it is a portrait of the country through the pictures, where every picture hints at something else, usually the care or lack thereof that led to what’s in the pictures.

If that read is correct (or maybe “has merit” would be a better way to phrase this), then we would be in Stephen Shore territory here (American Surfaces as much as Uncommon Places). Where to me Shore feels a bit too patrician in the pictures, ultimately making me realize they’re just that, pictures, the result of a willful act, Eggleston is more convincing: I am made to look at pictures and through them at the same time, wondering about why that window is so dirty or why that strange doll is so tacky. In other words, Eggleston makes me care in ways that Shore does not (I appreciate Shore’s work for different reasons, though).

Compared with the thematic volumes, the geographical ones operate in slightly difference ways again (of course, geography is simply another theme, but you probably understand what I’m getting at here). I did anticipate that the Pittsburgh volume would be very different than the Berlin one (which also includes pictures that look like they were taken in southern Germany), and it does. Given I lived in Pittsburgh around ten years ago, I looked at that volume first, before then moving on to the Berlin one. Both volumes present Eggleston as a visiting flaneur, with different levels of visual comfort. The pictures from the American city have so far given me the impression that he was a lot more comfortable visually there than in what was then that strange West German enclave in East Germany (which since reunification has been gentrified into oblivion).

What might be at play here is what I have come to think of as the idea of photographic recognition, by which I mean a photographer’s ability to see something and to then recognize that it presents an opportunity to create a good picture, essentially to recognize that one has stumbled upon a picture that is just waiting to be taken. This is a somewhat tricky concept, given it appears to deny a photographer the chance to grow. To grow, to be able to take more or different or better pictures inevitably means expanding photographic recognition. And you always have the choice to do that or not (the history of photography is filled with examples from both camps, with the latter, however, being a lot more numerous than the former).

I don’t mean to imply that Eggleston did not want to grow or change as a photographer. What I do see in the Berlin pictures (and to some extent maybe even in parts of the non-Southern US pictures) is a reduced level of visual comfort, where what is on view cannot be photographically recognized so easily. So for example, the Berlin car pictures are very good, as are many photographs that appear to have an obvious US correspondence. But many of the other pictures look as if they had been taken by a visually very adept tourist. And I don’t really see that as a problem, just in case you’re wondering. We should all be so lucky to take these kinds of quality pictures, instead of our selfies in front of what’s left of the Berlin Wall, say.

What this all adds up to, Eggleston’s Forest, I don’t know. It is as mesmerizing and fascinating and beautiful and infuriating and gratuitous and obscene and unresolved as the country it portrays, the country it makes us confront. That might ultimately be its real achievement, because while it’s good to see resolved books, some things might just be too complex to attempt to resolve them. Any attempt to arrive at something fully realized might just fall way too short. Seen that way, as I already noted above, The Democratic Forest in its 2015 Steidl edition is probably the best way to present these pictures.

Unfortunately, its form (especially price) will not make it easy for many people to see them. And there will have to be a significant investment of time by any viewer. But the rewards are well worth it. The Democratic Forest is William Eggleston’s crowning achievement. I’m hoping enough university and public libraries will acquire copies so that there is some chance for those interested in the pictures who cannot afford the cost of the set to see them.