Allen Boyer: Review of “The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston”

Editor’s Note: “The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston,” holds a publication celebration today, Monday June 17, at 5:30 p.m., at Off-Square Books.

When the Museum of Modern Art exhibited a collection of William Eggleston’s color photographs, it changed the history of modern visual art. That 1976 exhibit, recalled for its color-soaked painterly snapshots, is credited with bringing color photography into the artistic mainstream. “The Beautiful Mysterious,” a handsome volume, honors a Mississippi native who has been to American photography very much what William Faulkner was to American literature.

There are 55 photographs in this book, 36 of them exhibited at the University Museum. Many were taken in Waterford, Mississippi, on the way from Oxford to Memphis. Others, shot in 1976 for a series called “Election Eve,” show countryside vistas from Plains, Georgia. With their mix of bold outlines and cluttered foregrounds, striking colors and faded dilapidation, they rhyme with another series of photos, shots focused on the forgotten glories of a mansion in New Jersey.

Eggleston – Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in background, 1969-1970). Photo provided.

Other photos feature scenes from Memphis (where Eggleston, like many another Delta native, has a house and spends his time). One image here, of an outside stairway, is distinct and memorable. It sums up the eternal effort to uphold order and the eternal persistence of disarray: broad squared frames of bright white paint, sections of a massive retaining wall, are mocked by trash, two impudent wads of dingy paper. There is something in this photo of Di Chirico’s monumental paintings of plazas; and, like Di Chirico’s work, this artwork has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art.

The text contains appreciations by Ralph Eubanks, Amanda Malloy, Lisa Howorth, and Michael Almereyda (who also photographs Eggleston, in black and white). Anne Wilkes Tucker gives a memorable discussion of the forces and balances in a classic Eggleston photo, which shows Eggleston’s uncle flanked by his black servant.

Two seminar discussions sketch in the artist’s life, times, and culture, and supply percipient comments on Eggleston’s art. One discussion, by Megan Abbott (a former John Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss) strikes gold:

“Eggleston’s photos encourage the pathetic fallacy – which I’ve never thought of as pathetic at all – an old term we learned in high school English about attributing human emotions to things or objects: a lonely window, a lusty pair of headlights. . . . A lonely pink patio chair, squat and hopeful. A uniform starched on a clothesline, insistent and formal. A dishcloth with holes like eyes. . . .

Eggleston – H.C. Varner Grocery (1971). Photo provided.

“Eggleston has talked about trying to ‘creep up’ on his subjects and the photographs have just that feeling. We encounter these jagged Eggleston worlds just before or just after something perilous or ecstatic has happened. Or both, but what?”

This book serves as the catalog for an exhibit of Eggleston photographs shown at the University of Mississippi Museum from September 2016 through February 2017. The photographs in this volume were donated to the museum by Robert Ferris, the photographer’s longtime friend and founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

At the University Museum, director Robert Saarnio and collections manager Marti Funke have magisterially curated this celebration of images, and Ann Abadie has edited the printed book to perfection.

“The Beautiful Mysterious” takes its title from Albert Einstein, who wrote that the most beautiful thing that humans can experience is the mysterious. Its photographs show both that mysterious things can be beautiful, and that things that are not beautiful can nonetheless be hypnotically mysterious.

“The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston.” Edited by Ann J. Abadie. University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses Series / University Press of Mississippi. 144 pp. $40.00.


Allen Boyer, Book Editor for HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford, and a part-time photographer.

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