‘Life is in color, but black-and-white is more realistic,” director Samuel Fuller once said. Two exhibitions—a retrospective devoted to the sumptuously hued visions of a decadent Southern gentleman, and a show of vintage black-and-white prints, south-of-the border tabloid fodder by a man of the people—suggest he was only partially right.
Both artists were given Brownie cameras as 10-year-old boys. But William Eggleston deferred picture-taking until after he’d left the family plantation, when in college and later, as a restless young man-about-Memphis in the 1960s, he began honing a color aesthetic that was part Cartier-Bresson, part visitor from another planet.
Enrique Metinides, on the other hand—the son of Greek immigrants to Mexico City—set to work right away, photographing the frequent car crashes outside his father’s restaurant. He was just 12 in 1946 when, apprenticed to a crime photographer for the Mexican daily La Prensa, he began visiting morgues and accompanying policemen and rescue workers on their rounds.
The show at Josée Bienvenu Gallery includes rare examples of his earliest images, small-scale pictures of ladder-laden trucks colliding with trees and the like, their slapstick grace suggesting an unlikely marriage between Lartigue and the Three Stooges. That little boy’s obsession with automobile bang-ups was something he never quite outgrew. It evolved, over five decades of work for la nota roja (or “bloody press”), into a quasi-existentialist view of life as one long, impending disaster.
When a car crashed through a brick wall, or sank into a lake, or turned over on a highway and exploded, Metinides was there, photographing the billowing smoke and flames, the bodies strewn about, the chassis dredged from muddy waters. He caught the faces of onlookers—children, for example—peering into a sedan whose fatally crumpled front end appears layered like lasagna, their fear mingling with curiosity and even a strange pride at appearing before his camera.
Ousted in a newspaper coup, Metinides retired in 1997. (Since then, he’s remained shut inside his Mexico City apartment, obsessively recording hurricanes, earthquakes, robberies, and the like, from seven running televisions.) The images on view here date mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, and besides providing an unwitting argument for seatbelts—and against Volkswagen Beetles—they recall an era when the morning paper delivered its horrors fresh and uncensored.
Directors from Jean-Luc Godard in Week End to David Cronenberg in Crash have explored the eroticism of rubbernecking, but the hard-boiled, inky realities of film noir are Metinides’s main points of reference—his world a valley of shadows he traverses, with only his camera to guide him.
The pioneering work of William Eggleston, whose 50-year retrospective sprawls over a full floor of the Whitney, evokes instead a road movie piloted by some psychologically astute surrealist, who gets high on the crazed beauty of American vernacular culture: the tomato-red of a ketchup dispenser at a roadside hamburger joint; the neon glow of a liquor store at night; a geezer sitting on a single bed, pointing a pistol at a quilt. (If Gus Van Sant seems to have made that movie, that’s no accident; he’s just one among the many filmmakers that Eggleston has influenced.)
Eggleston himself took trips like that in the early ’70s, heading West from Memphis with the visionary curator Walter Hopps, who a decade earlier had organized Marcel Duchamp’s first museum retrospective. In fact, there’s a vague kinship between Duchamp’s signature invention, the ready-made, and Eggleston’s photography, which isolates elements of the everyday—a fluffy ocher negligée in a lingerie-shop display, or a glass of Coca-Cola on an airplane tray—and renders them indelible icons (in this case, of American silliness regarding sex, and our desires for escape, respectively).
But I digress. William Joseph Eggleston Jr. was born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, and was raised partly by his mother’s family, prominent landowners in Sumner, Mississippi. After desultory studies at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, where outside of class he discovered Abstract Expressionism, Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans, in 1964 he married his teenage sweetheart—they were known in Sumner for driving identical baby-blue Cadillacs—and set up house in Memphis.
Was black-and-white too loaded with the stark divisions of Southern life? By 1965, Eggleston had turned to color photography, using it to endow even the most prosaically suburban subjects—a supermarket clerk herding shopping carts in a parking lot, for example—with an unearthly glow.
Unlike his colleague William Christenberry, who has spent nearly half a century photographing a single Alabama county, Eggleston is more coy about his art’s Southern roots. (Stranded in Canton, his hallucinatory video installation from the 1970s, featuring impromptu performances by members of the Delta demimonde, evokes a destination of the mind as much as any real location.) Also included at the Whitney are recent pictures taken in Berlin, Kyoto, and Orange County.
But William Eggleston’s Guide, the title the artist gave to his first monograph (published in conjunction with his controversial and groundbreaking 1976 MOMA exhibition), suggests an introduction to particular territory. Judging from the photographs, then and later, it’s a lonely place, filled with suburban anomie, rimmed with madness, haunted by violence, and yet redeemed by unexpected beauty—like the ecstasy of a red-haired woman lying on a verdant field in a floral print dress.