…there is really no adherence to the principle of the decisive moment, which had so dominated photography for decades. It is a conceptual conceit of pure openness, more akin to the composer John Cage’s idea that you should be attuned to the presence of everything around you at all times. Only someone so instinctively gifted and confident as Eggleston could have pulled it off. Many others have since tried and failed to do the same. –Alec Soth
The artistic flâneur, the wanderer and spectator, is a curious archetype born from Modernism. Figures at the turn of the last century, perhaps best personified by the unpolished realism of Edouard Manet or Brassaï and the nightwalkers of photographic Surrealism, began to focus their attention and lenses to the uncanny candor of common life. In the century to come, few figures exuded the air of the flâneur with such striking verve as William Eggleston. The personification of the dandy out of his element, Eggleston presents himself as the ideal southern gentlemen, always clad in a tailored suit, polished shoes and dapper bow-tie. However, the subjects of his photographs rarely possess the same quality of regalia – raw and fleeting but full of an ethereal awareness made fulgent and tangible by Eggleston’s use of rich, expressive color.
Eggleston claims to never take more than one photograph of each subject – this purposefulness and agency of his calculated capture creates a relationship between concepts of decision and chance, time and place, person and object. The narrative recorded in the faces of many of Eggleston’s subjects allows this unique tension to articulate. Despite the widespread acclaim of Eggleston’s portraits, the photographer claims that he never set out to create them, 'Sometimes people just appeared.' The subject of Untitled, Memphis, 1972 certainly exudes an air of happenstance, the lens catches her gaze at the moment of awareness, capturing an expression of mingled bemusement and reproach. The woman in question seems out of place amongst her surroundings, her slight and manicured frame draped demurely over the edge of a battered yellow parking lot curb. She is in every way the center of focus in what would otherwise be a stark composition, the bold navy of a perfectly tailored dress pulls the eye of the viewer directly to her blurred and startled gesture. Eggleston has captured and rendered her immortal through his emblematic dye-transfer method, frozen in resonant blush.
The complex expression captured in the hard-lined faced of the woman with the strawberry-blonde bouffant evokes the autonomous grace of Manet’s Young woman in the garden (fig. 1) or the smirking and cocksure stance of the woman in Brassaï’s Girl in Montmartre at Snooker (fig. 2) – these are the women of the flâneur’s lens, neither muses nor fully aware they are caught in a periphery of participation, captured off-guard or with a dash of irony by peevish spontaneity. Though Eggleston is a not a wanderer amidst the streets of the world’s great cultural metropolises, he is a southern gentleman, very much mutually reliant upon the setting that formed him: the murky and often bizarre bayou of the American South. Although Eggleston has often acknowledged that scenically Memphis and the Mississippi Delta do not necessarily provide much bucolic appeal, the character, history and mystery hold an eerie sublimity beheld and expounded through the eyes of Eggleston.
Memphis and Eggleston seem to have a mutual creative understanding that compels him to approach the city with much more discretion and reverence than any of the individuals he treats like hunting trophies that have stumbled into his cross-hairs. A series of photographs shot in vacant and petrified Graceland, personify Eggleston’s careful yet cool regard for the sentiment of his setting. His compositions are colorful cocktails of muddled cynicism and delighted fascination. This whimsicality and wit has resonated with a wide audience since Eggleston has changed the medium of fine art photography forever in his groundbreaking exhibition in 1976 at the Museum of Modern Art: William Eggleston’s Guide. He has held exhibitions from the Tate, London, to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and established himself along the way as an indelible pioneer of photography as a contemporary art form.