Three photographs you should see this week in New York

Jessica Backus
Apr 4, 2013 2:11PM

Number 2: William Eggleston goes to war with the obvious in his exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

When William Eggleston's first major museum opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976—the museum's first major exhibition of color photographs—the critics panned it. "Perfectly boring" wrote Hilton Kramer. "Color is now one of the 'hot' problems in this medium long dominated by black and white images." Traditionally, art photography was black-and-white, and Eggleston's exhibition was a game-changer for the medium.  He has said of this time: "Black-and-white photography, which I was doing in the very early days, was essentially called art photography and usually consisted of landscapes by people like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston." With a “lean, monocular intentness” (John Szarkowski’s words) many of Eggleston's photographs of communities in the Mississippi delta have a sun-soaked, eye-popping palette that captures the light in Tennessee just-so—Paul Simon's description of this region on the road to Graceland as "shining like a national guitar" comes to mind.

This image occupied the cover of Eggleston's Guide, a book of 48 pictures shot between 1969 and 1971, mostly of the area around Eggleston's hometown of Memphis. This tricycle, like so many of the everyday objects littering the photographer's world (Wonderbread, trophies, cars, condiment still-lifes at diners), is both a larger-than-life symbol of a tenuous American dream and an unexpected, telling detail, revealing a profound tension behind a veil of the obvious. Why, after all these years, are we so captivated by these colorful items? John Szarkowski, in the introduction to the Guide, suggests: “We have been told so often of the bland, synthetic smoothness of exemplary American life, of its comfortable, vacant insentience, its extruded, stamped, and molded sameness… and thus are startled and perhaps exhilarated to see these pictures.”

At War with the Obvious. Photographs by William Eggleston is on view through July 28 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Jessica Backus