BY MIN CHEN
In William Eggleston’s celebrated Memphis, 1970, a kid’s tricycle is photographed from such a low angle that it dwarfs its suburban environs. An ordinary child’s toy, it is, through Eggleston’s lens, rendered unusual and unlikely, a colossal alien artifact that hardly fits into its neighborhood. Here is an unsettling familiarity as much as the unsettling of familiarity—typical of a photographer who, in a rare moment of self-reflection, once declared, “I am at war with the obvious.”
It’s a statement that characterizes both his work and his approach to that work. In his images, the contents of American life are documented in their common everydayness, but whether by way of composition or framing, or by dint of having been photographed at all, even the humblest objects and surroundings are elevated; their obviousness amplified. And in full, brilliant color. Eggleston notably embraced (and legitimized) color photography at a time in the late ‘60s when strictly black-and-white photography—as produced by Adams, Cartier-Bresson, and Frank—was endowed with the prestige of fine art. His expanded palette allowed him to not just depict the world as he saw it, but suffuse it with a radiant, hyper-real aura. Just note the graphic interplay of light and shadow in Untitled (White Car, Brick Wall), 1974, or the rich glow of the sky in Untitled (Peaches), 1971.
Eggleston, though, has zero intent of romanticizing his practice. He’s called his method of shooting “a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important.” He’s explained his process with, “When I get there, something happens and in a split second, the picture emerges.” Consequently, he’s stopped short of injecting his images with undue meaning, even eschewing titles. They are what they are: “The only thing one can do is really look at the damn things,” he’s said. Or as viewers are wont to do, they’ve exercised their own interpretations. As Spoon’s Britt Daniel, speaking about a picture from Eggleston’s Sumner, Mississippi, 1972 series, depicting the photographer’s nephew draped over a chair, remarked, “You can make up storylines just from the look on that kid’s face.”
Spoon would go on to use that image for the cover of their 2010 album Transference (Britt: “I wrote a note to myself, ‘Use for next cover: kid in chair, Eggleston’”)—joining a long line of other artists who have deployed the photographer’s work on their record sleeves. On these covers, the uneasy poetry and mystery of his photographs are undimmed, lit as they are by new contexts and graced by new meaning. Here’s an incomplete guide of album sleeves that engaged Eggleston’s unparalleled gaze.
Big Star: Radio City + Live at University of Missouri The first and most famous use of an Eggleston picture on an album sleeve, 1974’s Radio City features Greenwood, Mississippi (The Red Ceiling), 1973, a shot of a crimson ceiling, installed with a bare light bulb and threaded with white cords. It’s the most pedestrian of subjects, but as framed by Eggleston, an accidental choreography of composition and color—the cables running from the bulb travelling in a geometric pattern that contrasts crisply with the florid ceiling. It is that overwhelming red, in fact, that lends the image its foreboding yet electrifying quality. “When you look at a dye-transfer print, it’s like it’s red blood that is wet on the wall,” the photographer once explained. “It shocks you every time.”
Big Star know Eggleston as Bill, and they had ties that went way back: all hail from Memphis, Tennessee; Eggleston was “great friends” with Alex Chilton’s parents; and Chilton once dated Eggleston’s cousin, Lesa Aldridge. Bill also took the photographs of the band that adorn the back of Radio City. Almost two decades on, Chilton would again tap Bill for the cover of the group’s 1993 live album, Live at Missouri University. Employed this time was Eggleston’s Washington, D.C., 1990, which depicts yet another ceiling fixture, a white fan that seems to almost disappear against a similarly pale ceiling, offering colorless counterpoint to Radio City’s red planes.
Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American Watching her father photograph, as Andra Eggleston once described, was to witness how much the world captivated him. “I used to watch him study things—something so ordinary and so seemingly simple,” she said. “Like there would be a set of glasses that had no monetary value and he would zoom in those glasses and study them visually for sometimes days.” Eggleston’s images are woven throughout with that fixation. Just as he landed his eye on the most banal of articles, so too did those objects hold his gaze. Take his image of a clutch of trophies displayed atop a cigarette machine—a shot Jimmy Eat World picked for the cover of their 2001 pressing. It is not about what is being seen here, but the way it is being seen that bestows import.
For an album titled Bleed American (“I’m not alone ‘cause the TV’s on / I’m not crazy ‘cause I take the right pills every day,” goes the title track), Jimmy Eat World could not have availed themselves of a better photographer or photograph. Eggleston’s photos, if nothing else, offer views and vistas of American life in minutiae. They’re documents, offered without analysis or commentary. As he put it, “I had the attitude that I would work with this present-day material and do the best I could to describe it with photography, not intending to make any particular comment about whether it was good or bad or whether I liked it or not.” Thus, the image on Bleed American finds peers in Dolls on Cadillac, Memphis, 1972, featured on the sleeve of Alex Chilton’s 1979 solo debut Like Flies on Sherbert; in Untitled, 1980, as seen on Robin Holcomb’s 2002 folk platter The Big Time; and in Untitled (Martin Luther King, JFK & RFK decanters in Bar), 1971, used on the Silver Jews’ brilliant comeback album Tanglewood Numbers. In these pictures are arrayed, literally, the constituents and materials of ordinary, everyday America. To distill existence into artifacts so quotidian is, in turn, to find life in them. Or as Silver Jews’ David Berman once said of Eggleston’s work, “It’s warm inside these photos.”
Primal Scream: “Country Girl” + “Dolls” Eggleston’s picture of America, though, is often bereft of people. Eudora Welty, writing in the introduction to Eggleston’s 1989 photo book The Democratic Forest, noted this. And yet, she insisted, “This book’s our portrait… Like a magician, William Eggleston has raised [his vision of America] out of light colour, smoke and an absence of people.” Rare and refreshing, then, are works such as Untitled (Biloxi, Mississippi), 1974 or Untitled, 1974 (which captured Eggleston’s friend Karen Chatham and cousin Lesa Aldridge on a couch), or the aforementioned image of his nephew that appears on Spoon’s Transference. There’s also Untitled (Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi), 1970, which found its way onto 2003’s Soul Serenade by The Derek Trucks Band, and the pictures that cover two of Primal Scream’s 2006 singles. On the sleeve of “Dolls” sits Untitled, Memphis, 1972-73, Eggleston’s cropped profile shot of an American youth in 1970s regalia, and on “Country Girl” (and on Chuck Prophet’s Age of Miracles), Untitled, 1975, his snapshot of friend Marcia Hare spaced out on “half a quaalude.”
Though captured and exposed on film, these subjects remain ciphers: “It just feels like there’s a story there, but you don’t know exactly what it is,” according to Britt Daniel. And so we read Eggleston’s people like we read his landscapes—open to us for a split, candid moment, but ultimately, frozen in frame. “When I discover the picture, it happens very quickly indeed. Suddenly there it is,” Eggleston once said about the people he photographed. “They didn’t have a chance.”
Joanna Newsom: Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band + Gimmer Nicholson: Christopher Idylls Eggleston’s color photographs, already vibrant when depicting trophies, salt and pepper shakers, and living room furniture, are newly sultry and lush when containing nature. His nature-based works capture scenes from a neighborhood’s trimmed hedges to Southern plains to leaf studies in Jamaica, and are as haunting in composition as they are rich in tone. Observe the stark image on the cover of Joanna Newsom’s 2007 EP, which borrows from one of Eggleston’s Kenyan plant studies, its focus on a branch of blooms standing out against an azure sky. Newsom’s cover, however, tilts the original counterclockwise, so the tree limb, instead of emerging out of the left side of the image, sprouts up from the bottom, as if reaching for more of the blue expanse.
Or check out the sleeve of Gimmer Nicholson’s 1994 Christopher Idylls, on which a lone rose is framed by a white porch and various other hanging potted plants. It’s not an unusual suburban sight—a painted house encircled by meticulous landscaping—but its familiarity is jolted by the vivid cerise of the single rose. At once, it stands out yet underscores its muted, ordinary setting. “What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question,” as Welty shrewdly observed of Eggleston’s pictures, “familiarity will be what overwhelms us.”