Perhaps it’s my own fault for not checking the running time before popping this disc in. In my defense, I was studying up: paging one more time through Eggleston’s Los Alamos, staring lovingly at his cover photo for Big Star’s Radio City album.
But when William Eggleston: Photographer ended after describing the reception to the artist’s first exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, after only 26 minutes, I found myself looking for a Part Two on the menu, to no avail. Before I could settle into the languid pace of the documentary, set largely by the distinguished Southern cadence of Eggleston’s voice, the film was over.
It doesn’t seem like an overstatement to say that Eggleston is the most important American color photographer of the 20th century. One could even argue that Eggleston made color photography a viable art form. His shots seethe with color, partly a result of the dye transfer process he used, usually only seen in commercial photography, that allowed for saturated reds, blues and yellows.
His subject matter seems to range from the merely mundane to the actually ugly, but unlike Diane Arbus, who attempts to provoke in the viewer a confrontation with ugliness, Eggleston simply and elegantly reifies ugliness, presenting it as an end unto itself. When his shots include people, they don’t point towards a narrative, but explode the very need for it, reducing figures to shapes and colors within a composition.
The film, directed by Reiner Holzemer, includes rare bits of interview with the photographer, along with footage of Eggleston and his son out shooting. As Eggleston himself mentions, he is a fantastically disciplined shooter, limiting himself to one shot of any particular object, setting or vista.
The film centers (or seems ready to center) around Eggleston’s exhibition at the MOMA in 1976, explaining both the background for some of the intimate pictures of Eggleston’s friends and family that were included in the exhibit and the negative reaction the photos initially received. But by the time Eggleston mentions how those early critics turned out to be, simply, wrong, the film is over, having spent too much time providing exactly the kind of museum tour guide analysis of Eggleston’s work, exactly the type of analysis both Eggleston and his work staunchly resist.