William Eggleston the 'Big Star' of CAM's 'Starburst'

In the new Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit 'Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980,' a key point is that this work was tough stuff in its time. The art world couldn't understand why the new, upcoming photographers were eschewing artful black-and

In the new Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980, a key point is that this work was tough stuff in its time. The art world couldn’t understand why the new, upcoming photographers were eschewing artful black-and-white compositions and colorful nature landscapes to concentrate on banal, even grotesque shots of unglamorous everyday life.

The show specifically points out how confusing the work of Memphis photographer William Eggleston was to visitors when featured in a 1976 Museum of Modern Art exhibition. In particular, it recounts how notorious a 1973 photo of his called “Greenwood, Mississippi” was.

A shot of a blood-red ceiling meeting the corners of two blood-red walls, with a bare light bulb whose socket holds white extension cords strung across the ceiling, its aesthetics were confounding to those who saw it. In fact, it was seen as tawdry. The Starburst wall text explains how Ansel Adams, upon seeing it, said, “If you can’t make it good, make it red.” MOMA apparently felt too intimidated by its weirdness to even include it in the show’s catalogue.

Well, I went to that show and was wowed by that photo.

Not that I was an Eggleston fan at the time; I didn’t even know who he was. Not that I knew much about photography, either.

But I was a fan of rock music, having worked in a large record store in Cambridge and seeing virtually every show I could. One of my favorite albums of the period (and still is, actually) was Radio City by the Memphis band Big Star, an Alternative rock prototype. And the album’s carefully centered cover — surrounded by white border — was that same “controversial” photo by Eggleston.

The shock of seeing something so pop in such an august institution as an art museum floored me. And I’ve been familiar with Eggleston ever since.

The point here is that pop culture — an LP jacket, in this case — can render irrelevant all the prejudices and conservative impulses that the art world might have to new work. Ugly?

Not if Big Star liked it.

But it goes further than that. The aesthetics of Eggleston’s work, and of other photographers featured in Starburst, just made perfect sense. They, too, were alternative — a different way to look at the same world we all were part of, including more traditionally “beautiful” photographers like Adams or Elliot Porter. Rather than question that new vision of photography, i just got into the details of it. A light socket in a strangely painted room seemed as inherently interesting as a mountain landscape or ocean beach. Maybe more, because it wasn’t an idealized image. It had a hint of danger — a plus in the era’s not-yet-corporate rock culture.

In these days of CDs with their reduced cover size, could a record album still serve as such an introduction to art? As luck would have, the new album Transference by the band Spoon — an indie rock group — has another Eggleston photo from the same series, 1969’s “Sumner, Mississippi,” on its cover. (This photo, too, is in Starburst.)

A boy in a fussy chair, hands held above his head, sits in a greenish room, drapes closed, with light from an orange lampshade in the background. By the way, Spoon cropped the vertical shot (with permission), presumably to fit the CD’s square format. But there’s one big difference between this and Big Star’s use of an Eggleston photo. By now, the photographer’s name might draw as many fans to Spoon as vice-versa.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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