William Eggleston’s Untitled (Louisiana), 1980, printed 1999. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012.301). © Eggleston Artistic Trust.
NEW YORK - There’s a new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is a testament to the influence of the Museum of Modern Art.
Let me explain: The Met exhibition in question is “William Eggleston: At War with the Obvious,” opening Feb 26. Eggleston, now 73, was one of the most important photographers of the 1970’s and in the years since, and he was one of the first art photographers to work mostly in color. Works in the show like Unititled (Louisiana), a bleak lunch counter shot from an odd angle and anchored by a bright red bottle of hot sauce, are testament to Eggleston’s unusual and personal version of the world.
William Eggleston’s Untitled (Memphis), 1971, printed 1999. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012.285). © Eggleston Artistic Trust.
The way MoMA plays into the equation is interesting. Eggleston’s career was largely a creation of John Szarkowski (1926–2007), the photography czar at the museum, a lensman himself and the most important voice in the field for decades. Eggleston famously showed up at the museum with his portfolio—a cold call of sorts—and Szarkowski was blown away by the work. Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand are among those Szarkowski also championed and helped turn into names, largely because MoMA was back then the only major museum to take the medium seriously as art, not just craft.
The Met is choosing to celebrate Eggleston’s artistry now because in the fall of 2012 it was able to acquire 36 of the photographer’s most glorious dye-transfer prints, a method that Eggleston borrowed from advertising and is now commonplace in the contemporary photographer’s toolbox.
William Eggleston’s Untitled (Memphis), 1970. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012.281). © Eggleston Artistic Trust.
Certainly the maestros working in color today—from Andreas Gursky to David LaChappelle to Jeff Wall—owe him a debt. And we all owe Szarkowski for his eye, and his ability to take a chance on talent by leveraging MoMA’s heft.