As a color photographer, William Eggleston’s contributions are esteemed. His 1976 show at the MOMA in New York was decisive in the establishment of color photography as a fine art form. Peter Schjeldahl, writing in The New Yorker, named him "one of the great Romantic originals of camerawork, with Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore and Nan Goldin."
Stranded in Canton (1973-75), his sole video effort, was culled to 77 minutes from of 30 hours of black and white footage shot in and around his home city of Memphis, Tennessee. Eggleston recorded it with a Sony Portapak, a device whose benefits — low cost, ease of use and instant playback — enabled video art. Using it to delve into recesses that he previously only explored with a still camera, Eggleston shot a kind of a manic home movie with his social life as the setting.
Some of his friends ignore the camera entirely; in one household scene, a standing man speaks to his guests or relatives who are seated around a living room in armchairs. He punctuates his story with an abrupt "shut up!" every time someone else tries to speak, which grows more and more frequent as the Tennessee Williams-like scene progresses. Everyone seems oblivious to the camera; that is, until you hear someone off-screen carp "put that machine down!" That sentiment echoes in a later bar scene, where one man calls Eggleston a "posing asshole" and another comments, "I think what you’re going to find out is that not everyone wants to be filmed." A woman illustrates this point with her middle finger. Others are quite willing to mug for the camera. They mimic documentary narrators describing artworks, newscasters, actors in a hot romance, perpetrators in a crime drama and nightclub singers.
Stranded in Canton requires a strong stomach—and not only because of the acts of "geeking" recorded: I learned here that geeking means more than biting the head off of a live chicken—it also involves holding up the body like a wineskin and sucking blood from the remaining neck stump. If you happen to be prone to motion sickness, like me, nausea may beset you just from the lurching to and fro of the hand-held camera. Some of these experiments, though, yield sophisticated forms of camera play that did not get integrated into the general cinematic vocabulary until much later. In a gas station scene, for example, the camera revolves in a rapid circle around a man who follows it with his eyes and remains the target of the lens as the background scenery whirls. Such effects, though they were long ago perfected by such directors as Orson Welles and Max Ophuls, still exert a dizzying effect.
They certainly fit the circumstances, which, for the most part, are thoroughly alcohol-drenched, though it takes a while for this to fully register. In the early scenes, Eggleston throws us off balance with images of his children. His daughter provides dreamy and ethereal looks, while his son seems utterly transparent, exposing raw fascination through wide eyes and unguarded expressions. After that, the bleary and outrageous behavior of the adults takes over, signaled by the appearance of a whiskey bottle and party scenes.
All the while, Eggleston, with his Portapak, seems to be making notes of things he doesn’t want you to miss. In his extreme close-ups he moves all the way in — into people’s eyes and even into their mouths. The close-up of "Lady Russell" reveals his eye makeup; blues musician Walter "Furry" Lewis’s missing front teeth are the target of another zoom. This is not the side of Eggleston we are familiar with. His photographs may direct us to tender details, but his experiments with the Portapak magnify them.
Still, despite the close-ups, the film fills me with a sense of distance. As a Gen-X Californian, I am distant from the South, where my parents and grandparents grew up, and distant from the ‘70s, which I barely remember. Black and white film seems to push the action even further away; I am constantly aware of looking into another time and place. Yet the distance contrasts with the spontaneous quality and the informal, personal settings of the video which seem to invite you into their very real, private lives. The kids in the opening sequences certainly show an excruciating transparency.
Still, moving pictures can lie just as effectively as a static photograph. John Szarkowski, the curator of Eggleston’s 1976 MOMA show, noted that Canton, despite its cinéma vérité leanings, doesn’t necessarily provide access to the lives it purports to represent. And it’s precisely that tension — between openness and distance – that gives this video its essential frisson.
After I watch it, gallery director Jasmine Moorhead shows me Eggleston’s chromogenic prints. The contrast is vast. Where the stills are visually quiet, the video is verbose and raucous, and where the photographs are mostly devoid of people, the video explodes with them. If there are any quiet moments in Canton, they seem to center on a particular young woman who gazes at the camera with a calm, knowing look.
William Eggleston, Stranded in Canton @ Krowswork through May 23. (The show, Closer than they Appear, also includes work by Sade Huron and Ryan Smith.)
Learn more about William Eggleston.