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Untitled, 1974 (Biloxi, Mississippi)

MOST OF WILLIAM EGGLESTON’S photographs are untitled, so I play a game sometimes and give them titles of my own. What you see above is officially called Untitled, 1974 (Biloxi, Mississippi), also sometimes unofficially called Red-Haired Girl, but I call it Girl Paying for Something at Concession Stand.

I don’t know. It’s just what came to me.

As a general comment on Eggleston’s work, Eudora Welty said it best in her introduction to the collection The Democratic Forest:

“[His] photographs range widely, they are highly differing, richly varying. In landscapes, cityscapes, street scenes, roadside scenes, at every sort of public converging-point, in dreaming long view and arresting close-up, through hours of dark and light, he sets forth what makes up our ordinary world. What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question; familiarity will be what overwhelms us.”

Eudora Welty is a good launching point to talk about William Eggleston for two reasons: 1) she puts the crux of the matter most succinctly. I feel this sense of ‘familiarity’ when looking at William Eggleston’s photographs, like I have seen the images before. 2) As a great writer, she also represents the connection point I wish to relay back to my own artistic practice; William Eggleston takes pictures of the beautiful which hides in the mundane, as Welty points out, ‘at every sort of public converging-point.’ Literature, too, has a tradition in which writers—as widely varied as Proust and Raymond Carver—prioritize details in the mundane over conjuring drama from the fantastic.

Another one of my favorite examples, The Gas Station Around Every Small Town Corner:

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Arco Gas Station

PHILIPPE HALSMAN IS ANOTHER one of my favorite photographers who was from the generation before William Eggleston, in the heyday of black and white. And his photographs are different from Eggleston’s in just about every conceivable way. Probably the best way to show how diametrically opposed Philippe Halsman is to William Eggleston is to show each one’s self portrait:

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William Eggleston, Self Portrait, 1970

And Halsman’s:

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Philippe Halsman

Halsman is famous for the surreal quality of his work. Often his pictures are of movie stars and celebrities—as opposed to the ordinariness of Eggleston’s subjects—and usually at odd angles and in interesting situations. His aesthetic is at the opposite end of the spectrum in almost every respect to Eggleston’s. Notice the pains Halsman takes in his self-portrait to portray his head as disembodied. Eggleston’s self portait, on the other hand, is intimate and is almost an entirely reconstituted effort at authenticity and vulnerability.

Far from mundane, Halsman goes to pains to delve the more absurd and contrived aspects of beauty and life. One of the most famous examples of this is his portraiture with Salvador Dali, and in particular the photograph Dali Atomicus which is his most famous:

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Dali Atomicus

Again, literature has a corollary tradition: the absurdism and non-realism of Kafka, Calvino, and Borges purports with words to do what Halsman does with images. The job of surrealism is to deviate from reality in ways that exaggerate or enhance, as to point out, the ways in which life is profoundly unnatural.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TWO photographers who happen to be on the opposite ends of so many spectrums of artistic expression—one uses black and white, the other is famous for use of color; one’s subject is the celebrity, the other’s is universal anonymity; one spins situations of ridiculousness, the other finds authenticity and even mundanity in the ridiculous—is illustrative of how diverse art can be in its methods. Each has a different approach for communicative power and each commands a certain beauty in their photographs, which are distinct.

Naturally, I relate this back to literature with examples in mind since that is what I practice and know best. I imagine it’s a phenomenon in every art, in: movie-making, architecture, sculpture, music, etc. Beauty is this elusive thing that can be had in many ways, but always requires an honest pursuit.

THE BEST WAY TO END seems to me to be, not a picture, but a quote from Philippe Halsman, who originally wanted to be a writer, but found himself better suited for photography in the end:

“In my youth, I was mainly interested in literature and I dreamed about becoming a writer. The writers I admired above all others were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Both were very little interested in style, and they used language not as an artistic instrument, but only as a means of clearly expressing their thoughts. What impressed me was their psychological depth and their great honesty and lack of artifice. These were the qualities I tried to achieve in my photographs.”

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Interested in the work of William Eggleston or Philippe Halsman and want to support the site? Check out their monographs on Amazon:

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7 thoughts on “Two Ways of Seeing: William Eggleston & Philippe Halsman

  1. Your juxtaposing of Photography and Literature is stimulating. Literature too had surreal writing. For example: Henry Miller. We have gone a long way from the naturalism of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It’s an interesting question as to what avant garde fiction can go. Are ways of writing exhausted? I don’t know. Anand Bose from Kerala.

    Liked by 2 people

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