Fillip 1 — Summer 2005

Where World View and World Lines Converge
Shepherd Steiner

“Aesthetic ideology”—a term we borrow from the literary critic Paul de Man and which we can briefly describe as the treating of the literary or pictorial as art and not as material text or linguistic artifact—is a powerful fiction. 1 It has come under attack from various quarters, and no wonder. 2 It is not only something that one sees happening in the texts of Hegel and Kant, but is symptomatic of all critical methods, and inasmuch can be glimpsed in such otherwise opposing approaches to art and literature as the raising up of a spiritual content in the formal poetics of the New Criticism, and as the conjuring up of an ideal appearance or horizon of history in a wide variety of Marxist-based hermeneutic methods. “Aesthetic ideology” is a truly pervasive phenomenon, and judging from two recent installations of the same series of works by William Eggleston, it is a fine, highly wrought line as well; and one might add given the tenuousness of Eggleston’s Los Alamos, a fine line if, and only if, seen through a fine view.

Let me explain this somewhat cryptic and broad introduction to a rhetorical reading of William Eggleston’s Los Alamos (1966-74) through a brief detour that will allow me to set up the main argument in earnest; and by set up, I mean stage an easy and all too natural hermeneutic dialogue with the work, that the work itself calls up. The detour concerns my disappointment with the installation of Eggleston’s photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) after having seen the very same traveling exhibition in its prior incarnation at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. My feeling was that if Los Alamos was a success at the Louisiana it failed to coalesce as an aesthetic whole at SFMOMA. To my mind the reasons for this failure are varied, and no doubt include factors ranging from a certain leniency or indecision with regard to the ultimate arrangement of works in the series by the artist himself, to a simple lack of exhibition space available to the curators at the time, and on to the relative explosion of a private market for Eggleston’s works in the past year or two.

The problem with the SFMOMA’s installation was the curatorial assumption (and again this could in part be an authorial slip) that the photographs could indeed function as singular works of art, and failing this that stacking works on top of one another in sets of two would provide a sufficient motor for the generation of meaning or affect, that any single photograph lacked. That each photograph at the SFMOMA was accompanied by a title (usually indicating location)—unlike the installation at the Louisiana where the more than one hundred and sixty works were untitled and displayed in single file across six broad walls—would seem a confirmation of this. Certainly Eggleston’s various portraits of people both indoors and out can hold their own, as Jeff Wall has commented. And I think there are a few other compelling moments of pictorial integrity in the series, but this still leaves a lot to be desired. To my mind, the installation at the SFMOMA left just too many loose ends, fragments, or unfinished sentences, if you will.

One could say that if the high level of aesthetic taste that has emerged around contemporary photography is a contributing factor to the reappraisal and renewed interest in Eggleston’s work it also seems to be one of the main obstacles to the reception, curation, and understanding of this artist’s work. All of which brings me to my original experience of Los Alamos at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark where I first encountered the large suite of colour photographs apparently centered on the infamous location in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was invented.

What one noticed at the Louisiana is that making one’s way through Eggleston’s pictures is curiously impeded by a number of interpretative prejudices that hinge on questions whose importance is not often as central to Eggleston’s practice as one would like to believe from either general theories of photography presently in circulation, acquired modes of aesthetic contemplation, and paradoxically, by looking at the individual works themselves. Certainly, one has just cause to pause in front of any one of these photographs and contemplate their aesthetic value, but it is worth keeping in mind Hilton Kramer’s blunt response to an early showing of the works and one critic’s praise of them: “Perfect Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.” 3 How Eggleston’s works can verge on the ‘banal’ and ‘boring,’ and more importantly how such determinations can precipitate a durational effect, at the same time as one can confidently describe individual photographs as paradigmatic moments of aesthetic experience, is a crucial problem, perhaps the central problem to be asked of Los Alamos.

Among the interpretative biases that lead one away from tackling this crucial tension in Eggleston’s practice is, again, the prominence typically allotted the singular photograph, the importance of the notion of the photographic tableau, and finally the current interest in documentary photography, all of which are believed to be, if not antithetical, at least divorced from issues of narrative flow or fictive continuity which have a persuasive effect in this body of work. We can add to this list the important lessons forwarded by John Szarkowski. In his book William Eggleston’s Guide, Szarkowski reminds us of the importance of balancing Eggleston’s own notion of “photographing democratically”— i.e., taking pictures of virtually anything without a discretionary principle or a favored motif in hand—with this photographer’s practice of editing and cropping on the fly, through the viewfinder as it were; how this relates to “the nominal subjects of his pictures;” and finally how Eggleston’s pivotal use of color as a formal resource of the medium ties all of this together. 4 In addition, Thomas Weski and Lars Schwander direct our attention to Eggleston’s complex darkroom technique. Generally accepted as one of the fathers of modern color photography, we are to be mindful of Eggleston’s use of the so-called dye-transfer technique, a system of color printing developed for advertising photography. Didactic panels in the exhibition space tell us that the technique makes it possible to separate the three primary colors, work them independently, and transfer them directly on to paper, thereby allowing one to emphasize or manipulate particular details in any one picture and/or to establish color harmonies across a spectrum of pictures. 5 In Los Alamos, Coca-Cola red is constantly attracting one’s attention.

Over and above these questions that more than adequately represent the limits of an older model of formalist criticism in its death throes—and which are legion with the intrinsic concerns of form, composition, and the stopping power of any one photograph—one glimpses the trace of another order of worry: principally, how to engineer strikingness in a photograph that exists as a mere placeholder within a differential system of photographs. What one glimpses in Eggleston’s work is, in effect, a devaluing of the singular photograph that in turn is revalued or reinvigorated through other means. In spite of having all the characteristics of a long, sort of stuttering run-on sentence, Los Alamos manages to concentrate its energies through a multitude of ways and means to produce strangely significant and somehow compelling moments of visual experience. A sensitivity to the photographic practice at hand demands that syntactical questions intrinsic to individual pictures be radically opened up and rethought in order to address the way in which Eggleston stages the metaphoric—i.e., aesthetic—potentiality of any one picture, in terms of the syntactical relations that that one picture metonymically gathers up or mobilizes from pictures next to it, or, for that matter, from sequences or groupings of pictures that frame it on either side. 6

Thus one’s encounter with Los Alamos is not simply dictated by looking at a periodic or discrete series of photographic moments, nor is it ruled by a straightforward activity of reading in which one is carried naturally and inexorably from one image to the next. Rather, the dynamic is complicated by an intricate pattern of reading and rereading; a movement of skipping forward and scanning backward that allows one to pick up on narrative links which at first glance may have gone unnoticed, to enrich the connections of a particular passage that may seem attenuated, or to locate a particular picture that might come off as isolated. In Los Alamos meaning and sense creep up on one from the side: what Paul de Man calls “dozing metaphors” are continually being woken up by near cousins, next of kin and the like—a host of contingent relations that live next door and who are forever meddling in others’ affairs. 7 It’s not exactly the Hatfields and the McCoys that are going at it, but rather the Metaphors and the Metonymies! If a certain picture does punctuate or figure the vagaries of a particular passage, the thickness and plenitude of experience it offers up is precipitated out by virtue of a neighborhood of tropes that establish a texture of expectation, desire, longed for fulfillment, and the halting sense of closure or completion one demands in looking.

Thus the review of Los Alamos I had at first intended to write, one written against accepted wisdom and better judgment, given over to the temptation of flow, seduced by the lyric illusion of drifting aimlessly through this town, was one that finally found some interpretative mileage in the fact of a stiff hangover on a Sunday morning. There is a real ease to moving from one picture to the next, and if one’s wits are too sharp one can fall victim to focusing too hard on a single image, a high-minded approach to the photographs that I would say comes at the cost of the dull, simple pleasures to be had in precisely not being able to muster up any resistance to the varied transitions between photographs which make the entire suite of photographs blur into one long picture of the place. In one of my favorite passages, one finds oneself looking down and ready to drink from an old rusty water fountain with the drain-pipe missing. This pours out into the next photo as stains on a parking lot that look like spilled radiator fluid. In turn, this becomes a shot of a derelict gas station in a hard rain. “Now it’s really pouring!” The car’s broken-down… everything’s soaked… better get inside where it’s dry. Inside is a warm wooden floor that will track water, a welcoming old chair, and a Coke cooler. With no one around there’s a chance to snoop about, but the colour of the cooler carries one over to a bare-chested field worker in front of a corn field—he seems friendly enough—and just beside him a red garden shed. Still moving from left to right is a Delta Kream Cola sign. Some tail lights. Looking up, the bold red type and signage of a hamburger joint, then down, a guy eating a hamburger. Looks as if he’s taken too big a bite. He may burp—his neck muscles are tensed—he’s trying to swallow it down whole. This could be embarrassing. Best to look away; either back the way one came for a drink to wash it down, or better, to a road sign on the outskirts of town. On second thought, better hurry on to the next picture, it’s not good hitching with a storm coming.

Such impressive fluidity between pictures does not come easily. It has all the effortlessness of a seriously intense practice of culling down, editing, selecting and organizing pictures from what must be a huge archive. On top of this there are the acute problems intending upon the micro positioning and broad sequencing of six wall-length narrative sections of fifteen to thirty pictures each. Nor is the narrative thread I have just traced the only way to negotiate this particular passage. The connections and transitions are slippery and loose. Moreover, the echoes or narrative strand one is following is not always showcased front and center. Sometimes significance pops up to one side, is translated from a visual language into textual metaphors, and as often as not, is bound up in basic needs, expectations, as well as the crushing of these, and also the terms of simple hazard avoidance. Walking around the corner of a building while looking up at the soffits is dangerous. Best to look where you are going! As risky is wandering into the bad part of town. Don’t dawdle here! Keep moving. There is a picture of a boy holding a snake in front of a long flat sign that reads Gila Monster Lizard Show. I found myself moving across the yellow type with speed and before I knew it I had slid off the surface entirely and was looking at the next shot. There is another ‘show stopper’ of a sign that gets the juices watering for a feed of catfish, reading ‘Minnows 2 cents.’ I bet Eggleston and his traveling companions Dennis Hopper and Walter Hopp’s shared a laugh over this one. At times the main motor for moving the viewer on are uncomfortable subjects or obstacles, like that playground sign placed in the way of a plunging perspective, and in one often reproduced photograph in the same vicinity, one finds oneself inhabiting a crouched or kneeling position too close to a young girls leg; so close one can almost feel it, not to mention the tattoo on the back of her hand.

Along with these works which seem to encourage a movement that is more akin to deflection than a clean, perspectival entrance or engagement with a central figure or subject matter, narrative flow works through synaesthesia (where a car tire turns into a shot of pea gravel that you can hear on a driveway), metonymy (where hunger can become thirst, and the color red can lend paradigmatic status to a lonely Coke can), synecdoche (when a tire sign on top of a building is easily substituted for a picture of a whole car), and a host of other tropes. One picture can move in the space of three photographs to affirm its exact opposite. Indeed the persuasiveness of looking up in one picture can be satisfied with a shot right next to it that simply looks down. In one particularly instructive passage of seven images whose subject matter moves from the picture of a round light bulb, to a tire sign, to the back tail lights of a car, past three more cars (two of which are perhaps the same car) and eventually to an old garage, one moves from circular forms to rectangular ones, crisp colors to muddied ones, over-saturated reds, whites and blues, to a blending of orangey red and brick hues. But one also moves from a blue sky to a turquoise car, across to manipulated browns and greens that may be the same car, through a black, overexposed section which recall earlier contrasts and which lead one to the effects of harsh sunlight, deep shadows and finally, wet mud. Simply put, the temptation not to give each photograph its due and instead move through the suite as a system of incredibly complex and multilayered relays and substitutions is one of two potentialities that Eggleston plumbs within the language of photography.

The other potentiality, the one more easily assimilated to traditional aesthetic categories, is in a complementary relation with the first. In as much stopping in front of a photograph is underwritten by movement between photographs; equally moving between works is precipitated by discrete photographs to such an extent that no amount of arguing the one position can rationalize the other away. And so, Los Alamos is also made up of impressions, though far too gentle to be at all striking. These are fleeting, at times exhausted, and at other moments, just plain lazy-eyed-beat-down-by-the-heat-type glances. Often, the camera comes to rest on things in the same way as one’s eye finds an object upon letting out a sigh. On the surface this seems very much the slack aesthetic of the Beat poets made visual, and no doubt the work calls out to be framed as a reaction to the conception of art photography dominant in the 60s and 70s. This said, subtle distinctions emerge within the format of this Kerouac-like road novel. One comes across contemplative moments: signage that refers to Walker Evans, unsettling and chance encounters with townsfolk like the old sourpuss at the shopping center, or the intrusive moment at a phone booth—along with planned and contrived shots with keys on the ground and dolls on the hood of the car. Shots taken when there is still a morning chill in the air—when it’s too hot, too rainy—a sequence of interior shots that strike one as slightly unexpected; those that feel like you are with friends, as well as lonely, late-night interiors, pictures from the seedy side of town, and those snapped over a coffee at the diner. Then there is that sequence which stupidly proclaims its subject matter to be that of cars on a street, another that glories in the color green, in the texture of naugahyde and in heart-shaped forms. Lastly, there is that dispersed though thematic grouping of pictures that appear meaningful precisely because they may not be about what they show. I refer to those pictures showing the photographer looking through various types of windows—as much as when these attempts to see through a transparent glass are frustrated by the translucency of plastic sheeting, glare, morning fog, or a graininess that only shows itself in a print. This occurs most tellingly when the photographer looks into the interior of a car through a half-open window that reveals both the woman driving and the reflection of Eggleston himself taking the picture.

Though the temptation is to privilege such terms that fit so neatly into our ideas of a self-reflexive practice, there are so many narrative groupings that deserve singling out that prioritizing one above the others risks missing the larger point a rhetorically aware reading puts forth. Hence Eggleston’s portraits which are often as off-putting as they are a welcome break from the monotony, like the hardworking grocery boy (apparently the very first picture taken even though it’s the third from the beginning), or the young gas jockey thrilled to be photographed and trying to be cool. Near the end of the suite, two photographs—one of a sitting room coated in tin foil and the other of a florescent light eerily glowing in a hotel room—may confirm what one was expecting to find leaking and radiating out of this town with its highly charged place name from the very beginning. Finally there is the airline picture of a glass of rum and coke with a swizzle stick in it that stops one cold. The jump to and from it is far more radical than what one sees in other transitions. With a tinge of melancholy that might equally be read as the self-satisfaction of having chosen a particular rum or airline, it is somehow a deliberate moment that in addition feels like the authorial persona is saying “I didn’t shoot the series in one go. I had to fly back and forth a few times to get all the pictures I needed.” But also I take it to be a reminder that Eggleston’s practice spans the spectrum of possible positions between the tableau and the unpremeditated reportage photograph, and that either extreme is shot through with the other by virtue of the interference played by positionality within a series.

All in all, one comes away with a picture of Los Alamos that is manifold, hard to grasp, half-felt, variously narrated, remembered, experienced, accurately recorded, thematically organized and also carefully reflected upon. One lives within these photographs as much as between them. One imagines the transitions from one moment to the next to be everyday negotiations, and one assumes the more than one hundred and sixty little memories of this place to be one’s own. But past and present are so deeply intermingled here that it is impossible to draw any hard and fast conclusions. What seems like a passive movement between works—and it can only be passive relative to the procedural dogma of actively engaging with individual photographs—can have the effect of a far more active process of knitting and weaving odds and ends together for the semblance of a durational experience in the present. Conversely, the shadow line that cuts an ice cream menu in two and gives it all the presence of a hot afternoon can turn as quickly into a memory of how life once was and how that has all changed, merely by noting the strong horizontals of the picture beside it. It is in the very subtle fabric of recouping a past or of bringing memories to life, as well as recognizing such aesthetic moments to be rhetorically animated through linguistic means that one comes closest to the artistic questions that drive this practice. In a sense, Eggleston walks the viewer through these difficult editorial decisions every time he or she turns this photographic language into the semblance of experience, and conversely, when that same viewer is sensitive enough to feel out the way in which syntactical questions that hinge on selection and positioning underwrite such semantic effects.

By way of a conclusion, it would be wise to mention that if there is one question every viewer will ask of Eggleston’s work, it will be why Los Alamos and not somewhere else when so many of one’s expectations of this place remain unfulfilled. Essentially this is a question of how “Los Alamos” as subject matter figures on the global level and the relationship that exists between metaphor and metonymy on the micro-textual level. Once again, an answer hinges on the irreconcilable experience of the “aesthetic” on one hand and that of its narration on the other, 8 or, more specifically, on the variable and far-ranging dispersions or scattering that _Los Alamos_—the place, the idea and the world-historical moment—is subject to. There are two mutually-exclusive readings that are made possible by this work and each has its own urgency and presence. In this sense, on the broad level of theme, Los Alamos behaves as the phenomena, known to quantum physics, as complementarity. But if a phenomenon born of a discovery by Max Planck, developed by Niels Bohr, drawn out and refined in the course of debates with Albert Einstein, mathematically proven by Werner Heisenberg, and finally, put to practical application in Los Alamos by Robert Oppenheimer and Werner Von Braun has only an analogic relation to Eggleston’s work and does not have an actual purchase on the texture of hesitations that are constitutive of the practice itself, then all of the name dropping in the world is of little interest. 9

Some small consolation may be found within Eggleston’s notion of Democratic photography. If one integrates Eggleston’s conception of photography as placeholder into his description of taking pictures in the Democratic Forest “…outdoors, nowhere, in nothing… just woods and dirt, a little asphalt here and there” a deeper structure of intentionality does surface. 10 Such a determinate negation, that digs the line between death and signification, avoids the easy, careless, just-shooting-in-the-woods-type negations referred to above. With a lack of determinate focus, a refusal of a purposeful gaze, an antipathy to the line of sight and the rational geometries of the camera, the notion is curiously homologous to the answer quantum mechanics provides to the long-standing problem posed by Newtonian physics. In the Principia, Newton proposes that “The description of right lines… upon which geometry is founded, belongs to mechanics. Geometry does not teach us to draw these lines, but requires them to be drawn.” 11 The question begged here (and it has a purchase on the irreconcilable nature of the relationship between a poetic model of language and a hermeneutic model) is that if mechanics accomplishes this miracle, through what machinery is the “right line” drawn How does a particle—say of light, or more succinctly, a reader, and hence also a photographer, who one imagines in “Los Alamos” to be constantly worrying about the ‘right line’ while looking through the viewfinder (and not arranging photographs already taken in order to construct this fiction)—move along a straight line

“The particle moves along the straight line only by not moving along the straight line.” It wanders and drifts: today certainly into the theoretical regions mapped out by the likes of Deleuze and Guattari, but during the Cold War, more fundamentally, the particle would have drifted according to what the physicist Richard Feynman called the principle of the Democratic equality of all histories:

“In effect, (the particle) ‘feels out’ every conceivable world line that leads from the start, (x’, t’) to the point of detection , ‘compares’ one with another, and takes the extremal world line. How does it accomplish this miracle The particle is governed by a ‘probability amplitude to transit from (x’, t’) to . This amplitude or ‘propagator,’ , is the democratic sum with equal weight of contributions from every world line that leads from start to finish.” [12]

In terms of “lived,” spatial and temporal coordinates, the particle moves from the picture of a cloud somewhere on Highway 51 in New Mexico (the first photograph) to that of an African-American family posing on Santa Monica pier (the last photograph). “Governed by a ‘probability amplitude to transit from (x’, t’) to ,’’ it circles and flows from any one nominal subject to the next. And, lest one forget, it follows those world lines, a “democratic sum” or multitude of weak lines of gravitational attraction that underwrite the gaze and its object, as in that glass of rum and coke which speaks so clearly of supremacy and a world view.

  1. See Paul de Man, Aesthetic Ideology, ed. A. Warminski (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). My understanding of de Man’s project here is indebted to Andrzej Warminski, whose work I would like to acknowledge on these first points.# See esp. Andrzej Warminski, “Ending Up/Taking Back (With Two Postscripts on Paul de Man’s Historical Materialism),” Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing, ed. C. Caruth and D. Esch (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 11-41.
  2. This was Hilton Kramer’s response to the work and John Szarkowski’s description of it in a New York Times review from the 1970s. Quoted in Louisiana Museum press release, 3 March, 2004. It is worth pointing out that Walter Hopps’ reading of the work basically places the effect Kramer responds negatively toward in a positive light.
  3. John Szarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide (New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002).
  4. See Thomas Weski and Walter Hopps, William Eggleston, _Los Alamos (_Scalo Verlag, 2003). The exhibition organizer at the Louisiana, Lars Schwander, had Weski’s text on hand and writ large as a didactic panel.
  5. On this point one must be careful not to simply collapse the dynamic flagged here in terms of what we know about the system of language from structural linguistics. My use of metaphor as interchangeable with a notion of the aesthetic, and in terms of a complementary relation to metonymy, is borrowed from Paul de Man’s reading of Proust. In de Man’s view, the aesthetic is a metaphoric construction. Thus, of the famous reading scene near the beginning of Swan’s Way, he writes: “The passage is about the aesthetic superiority of metaphor over metonymy, but this aesthetic claim is made by means of categories that are the ontological ground of the metaphysical system that allows for the aesthetic to come into being as a category.” Paul de Man, “Reading Proust,” Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 14. De Man’s use of metonymy is worth pausing on here. It is not of that species defined through contiguous association in a viewer, as is flagged later in this essay. Rather, metonymy, in its syntactical form, is a question of spatial proximity or nearness. In grounding metaphor thusly, the viewer uses metonymy to build metaphors, but is blinded to the groundwork metonymy is doing. Conversely, if one looks for metonymic relations across a sequence of pictures, one will find that it is underwritten by metaphoric moments. De Man describes the relation between them as one of complementarity. He writes: “The disjunction between the aesthetically responsive and the rhetorically aware reading, both equally compelling, undoes the pseudo-synthesis of inside and outside, time and space, container and content, part and whole, motion and stasis, self and understanding, writer and reader, metaphor and metonymy, that the text has constructed. It functions like an oxymoron, but since it signals a logical rather than a representational incompatibility, it is in fact an aporia. It designates the irrevocable occurrence of at least two mutually-exclusive readings and asserts the impossibility of a true understanding, on the level of the figuration as well as of the themes.” Ibid., 72.
  6. Ibid., 66.
  7. De Man writes: “The ‘moment’ and the ‘narration’ would be complementary and symmetrical, specular reflections of each other that could be substituted without distortion… By an act of memory or of anticipation, the narrative can retrieve the full experience of the moment. We are back in the totalizing world of the metaphor. Narrative is the metaphor of the moment, as reading is the metaphor of writing.” Ibid., 68.
  8. For a discussion of this history and its repercussions for contemporary theory, see Arkady Plotnitsky, Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology after Bohr and Derrida (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), esp. 1-13.
  9. William Eggleston, _The Democratic Forest (_New York: Doubleday, 1989).
  10. Throughout this set of questions and answers, I paraphrase and quote from the section “Action Principle and Dispersion Relation Are Rooted in the Quantum Principle; Feynman’s Principle of the Democratic Equality of All Histories,” Charles W. Misner, Kip S. Thorne, and John Archibald Wheeler, Gravitation (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co, 1970), 499.
  11. Ibid., 499.
About the Author

Shepherd Steiner teaches Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Florida. Recent publications include Snow Changes Everything: Unfinished Form in the Filmwork of Ibon Aranberri (Funadcio Tapies, 2009); “(Art and) Democracy | Hegemony (and Anarchy),” in Becoming Dutch (Eindhoven, 2009) and “Curatorial Formalism and Tinkering with the Political on the Far Side of the Subject at Documenta XII” (Journal of Visual Culture, 2008). His curatorial project focussing on American painting and video art, titled Acts of Non-Agression: 1960–76, opened at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, in September 2008. He is currently finishing a book on Modernism titled Mnemotechnical Bodies: Close Readings in Modernist Painting, Sculpture, and Criticism.

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