William Eggleston’s Troubling, 15-Part Portrayal of American Life
Murky puddles of mud and motor oil; the contents of an icy freezer; a forlorn pinball machine; an empty cream-colored living room—these are among William Eggleston’s 15 seemingly divergent scenes featuring slices of American life from the the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, Tennessee, which are collectively (and evocatively) titled “Troubled Waters.” In his trademark saturated tones, the photographer developed his career arounded isolated moments from American life, focusing on formal qualities—color, texture, composition—rather than contexts and locations. Though it appeared four years after his seminal Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Troubled Waters,” released at the close of his most prolific decade, offers an iconic glimpse into the photographer’s production, and is proof of his ability to capture, expose, and foreground the dark moments embedded in mundanity. This portfolio sees new light this fall in London as it is exhibited as a focal point of Cheim & Read’s presentation at Frieze Masters.
While the series plainly portrays rural and roadside American life, true to Eggleston’s practice, it doesn’t readily connect to any particular sites. In the case of “Troubled Waters,” the images are visions of the “New South”—the optimistic term that was given to the American South following the Civil War—and serve as both representations and realizations of its negative connotations. This is best seen in a photograph featuring a neon sign depicting the confederate flag, in an inky black sky beside a palm tree.
Interspersed throughout the series are images that exude loneliness and forgetting, through varied cultural tropes and motifs of isolation. Eggleston manages to create compelling scenes from a freezer brimming with microwavable, processed foods and an isolated gas station at twilight. In another work, he presents a vision of obsolescence: a worn pinball machine stands abandoned, showing signs of use, scuffed and faded in color, which is only highlighted by rays of harsh sunlight.
Other works in the series range from chilling, as in a shadowy driveway on a rainy day, to revolting, evoked through a pile of slimy green garbage bags heaped into a tall pile, bulging with waste. These works function as complements to more overtly melancholy images, particularly the photograph that inspired the series’ title. This work, the first in the series, homes in on a murky brown puddle surrounded by dense land, discarded motor oil cans, and monstrous tire marks. Most troubling may not be the refuse, or the flattened Coca Cola can—which, along with the Quaker State oil cans, cements its tie to American culture—but rather the puddle itself, where ominous bubbles and ripples emanate from its center. Despite being devoid of human life, the work portrays human actions—destruction, neglect, and disregard for morality. These timeless themes are reflected in the works themselves, which, despite their heavy concerns, are fresh, compelling scenes, that together deliver a 15-part discussion on human values in the face of modernity.
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.