1976 – 1977
On a late October day in 1976, William Eggleston got in his car and drove from Memphis, Tennessee to the small town of Plains, Georgia, a place that looks as it sounds, and is the hometown of 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. Eggleston was on assignment, commissioned by Rolling Stone to photograph the then presidential candidate and his family. Eggleston returned to Memphis with no photos of Carter—or indeed any Carter. Jimmy was away campaigning in other states, probably in California at the time of Eggleston’s trip, and although the photographer “held court in the town square” with Carter’s mother, no photographs of her were submitted to the magazine. Or, to be more accurate, no photos were submitted to Rolling Stone at all.
What we get instead, in 1977, is Eggleston’s two-volume artist’s book Election Eve, one of his rarest and most collectible. It was released in a limited edition of only five copies. Housed in a cloth clamshell box of an encyclopedia-red color, the book’s format was inspired by Alexander Gardner’s opus Gardner’s Sketchbook of the Civil War. Both books are bound in leather with a marbled cover of swirling reds, browns, creams, and oranges. It’s an exquisite object.
The 100 prints contained within show scenes that are measurably more modest. In the book’s beginning pages, there’s an old tree in the middle of a field—it’s perhaps an oak tree, the state tree of Georgia. The sky is overcast, blue, and moody. Also included: a photo of three horizontal bands of color—earth, trees, and mist—and a silver chain-link fence running parallel; a row of mailboxes with their red flags lowered; a flowering plant in front of a ramshackle structure; rain pummeling a gravelly clay parking lot; a tight crop of the right side of a truck.
In addition to the landscape’s verdant greens (once Eggleston’s favorite color), patriotic colors abound. There’s an image, artlessly composed, of a white brick building on red-brown dirt, blue sky above. There’s a more complex photo of a man (one of the few people in the set) walking toward a red and white CITGO; above him, a string of plastic pennants in blue, white, red, blue, white, red. Shot slightly off-kilter, a window in the center of a white clapboard wall has panes in alternating soft red and pale blue. And then there is a photo of a brown car parked on reddish ground, a Jimmy Carter sticker on its bumper; the blue sky in the background is delicately divided by sections of stippled and smeared white clouds.
The subject matter is ordinary: trees, roads, buildings, gas stations, diners, gravestones, churches, the changing weather. The photo I love most was shot from somewhere behind a rusty wagon. Part of the wheel and a pentagon of metal take up one lower corner. Eggleston’s camera is pointed towards the road and some trees growing alongside it. A sapphire-blue car is rendered in a blur. It is moving too fast for the camera to capture. A rainbow arcs across the sky—the mundane made sublime—what Eggleston does best.
Election Eve is a book that is quiet and still, heavy as rainclouds, the visual equivalent of holding one’s breath. It is as Lloyd Fonvielle describes in his preface, “a statement of perfect calm” at the precise moment when the political tide shifts. Although the outcome of the 1976 election was difficult to predict—The New York Times declared “PRESIDENTIAL RACE…VERY CLOSE ON THE EVE OF THE VOTE”—polls projected that Carter would “sweep his home state.”
And, so, everything in the book exists in a state of grace. There is a photograph in red, white, blue, and brown of a wooden porch. The porch is the stage; the cast: a potted plant in a white vase stretching toward the sunlight, two blue containers streaked with red, and, so far to the side you could miss it, a man’s brown-gummed loafer and the bottom of his brown-patterned pants. (I imagine the same image impressed on the next day. A newspaper boy delivers the news, and the man reaches down, hand and head entering the frame, to pick it up.)
I’ve always read in Election Eve a kind of tender and hesitating optimism for the future. But Eggleston would never say so himself. He generally refuses to make statements about his work, and interviewers are discouraged from asking about specific photographs. “A picture is what it is,” he says. He has never voted. The closest we might get to a political endorsement from Eggleston is this: “I like [Jimmy Carter] running. I think he was a nice gentleman, still is… I didn’t think any about it. I just took pictures of what I saw there, pretty much that simple.”
In December 1977, the Corcoran Gallery would publish a selection from Election Eve in a slim exhibition catalog. The cover was a cornflower blue, the blue of a clear sky after rain.
1978 – 1979
In 1978, Eggleston travelled again on commission, this time by AT&T. The telephone company granted $3,000 to twenty contemporary photographers and gave them fairly free reign. The terms were straightforward. A show would be mounted at the Corcoran Gallery in October, 1979. Fifteen works per photographer would be shown. The theme was America, to be interpreted as the artists saw fit. Eggleston took off for the Gulf States, making stops along the 32nd parallel.
His contribution to the show was not well-received. Jo Ann Lewis, the Washington Post art critic at the time, wrote, “It helps not at all to know that William Eggleston is exploring the 32nd parallel. His photographs, with the exception of one murky pond, are boring as ever.”
In November of 1980, Eggleston mounted another show of fifteen images at a gallery in Chelsea. It opened mid-month and ran for only a few days, closing on November 29. Troubled Waters, it was titled. The photos were taken in Memphis and around the Mississippi Delta. The first photo was of three cloudy puddles. (The murky pond perhaps?)
Eggleston points his camera at some water and refuse and some reddish-brown dirt. What does the plate show us? A vehicle has driven through the puddles leaving tire marks in the surrounding mud. In the foreground, ripples have formed on the surface of the largest puddle. Unseen wind is blowing. Oil cans in a cardboard box sit on the left edge. A can on its side sits on the right edge. In the upper half of the puddle, ripples reflect the light above; the rings are a radioactive green. Upon closer inspection, the ground, too, seems to glow green.
1980—it’s another election year, but Eggleston’s photos could not feel more different. Why do I read in them something like the twilight of mankind? The anticipation of Election Eve replaced with dread.
What happens in 1980?
Jimmy Carter is up for re-election, running against Republican Ronald Reagan. Reagan kicks off his presidential campaign on August 3 at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. A few miles away from the rally, up an unmarked back road on another day in early August of 1964, the remains of three missing civil rights workers were found in a red clay earthen dam. They were arrested by the county’s deputy sheriff (a Klansman), jailed, released, followed by a KKK lynch mob, abducted, shot, and buried, one of them alive, by a bulldozer.
Back at the rally, addressing the predominantly white crowd, Reagan begins by talking about bad deals or what he calls “a misdeal.” He talks about jobs, unemployment, inflation, welfare, a “vast bureaucracy,” “that federal establishment.” He says, “I believe in state’s rights.”
Thinly-veiled language. Lee Atwater, Reagan’s campaign coordinator, later reveals his Southern strategy in an interview: “You start off in 1954 by saying, ‘N—, n—, n—.” By 1968, you can’t say ‘n—’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff…”
Reagan’s campaign slogan: “Let’s make America great again.” The antiphony of political history. (I see it in Troubled Waters.)
(A call and response.)
Red and blue string lights, wound around a green pole, twisting and choking.
A statue of a woman mourning.
And an ink-black night. A neon Confederate flag touches a palm tree. Leaves like hands. Glowing, red. The lens flare looks like a flame.
August 5, 1980. The first named storm of the hurricane season reaches Category 5. Hurricane Allen, the fastest hurricane to date, rips through the Caribbean, killing over 250 people. August 10, it makes landfall in Texas. The storm, now a Category 3, claims seven lives. Seventeen oil workers are reported dead in Louisiana after attempting to evacuate. A tanker holding 280,000 barrels of oil runs aground.
Outside a water treatment plant, it’s going to rain again.
Dark skies and shadow. A driveway. Pavement wet and silver, slick and reflective.
The sun has set. No one’s around. No cars are seen. An ARCO. The ground shines blue, pink, purple. A bit of green grass. All the colors of a bruise.
October now. Ronald Reagan addresses steel and coal workers in Ohio. He makes the scientifically-unsound remark that trees cause more pollution than cars. (While he is making these statements, Los Angeles is under ozone alert. People are advised not to go out or to “move around too much.”)
Reagan has something of a vendetta against trees. In 1966, when he was not yet California’s governor, he addressed the Western Wood Products Association in San Francisco by saying, “A tree is a tree—how many more do you need to look at?” He’d say a year later, regarding the state’s redwoods, “I saw them… there is nothing beautiful about them.”
A field was cleared some time ago. Weeds have taken over. Luminescent yellow-green on the horizon. A tire track in the center of a red dirt road. Red weeds all around—amaranth, the careless weed.
Then, a different kind of field—a representation of one, at least. A football field in a pinball machine. The red and white paint has been scratched away by fingernails. In the image, Eggleston noticed “a sickly green…that he had never seen in a photograph before.” It is everywhere in the series. It is in an image of clear green garbage bags. It is there in the shadows. It is an unnatural color, an inhuman color. It suggests contamination, waste, pollution. It suggests danger and dying.
There is only one photo with people in Troubled Waters. It was taken sometime between 1971 and 1973. It is one of the photos taken earliest. You can date it visually, as it stands out technically; the structure of the grain is different. In the photo, four black children walk barefoot along a dirt road. Cotton fields spread out behind them. Three are wearing yellow. One is in a blue and red outfit. They look at the photographer with something like concern or bemusement or suspicion on their faces.
Where did the children go?
The rest of the images imply that humans have all but died out. Only a dog remains, stalking in the shadows. In a photo of an empty diner, a window is bathed in supernatural yellow light. It looks like the Rapture.
Ronald Reagan openly alluded to the end times during his run for presidency, and spoke of Armageddon years before that. In 1971, Reagan told James Mill, “For the first time ever, everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ…It can’t be long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons. They exist now, and they never did in the past.”
In an interview televised during the 1980 campaign, he said, “We may be the generation that sees Armageddon.”
Describing his own work, Eggleston has said, “It’s not so much about the people themselves, physically… it’s what they do. That’s what pictures are; what the people have done.”
November, 1980. The election and the election results. Eggleston’s show goes up and comes down. Hurricane season ends.
“Art never, of course, explains or proves meaning—the picture is only a record of the artist’s witness to it.”
– Robert Adams in Why People Photograph
What does it look like to confront the blatant avarice of those in power—people who hold no affection for truth or life in any of its forms (for communities, for people, for trees or fields)? Between 1976 and today, one president signed Superfund legislation into law. One president said, in a Freudian slip, “Facts are stupid.” And one said, before his presidency, “global warming was created by and for the Chinese.”
On November 1, 1976, The New York Times declared “PRESIDENTIAL RACE…VERY CLOSE ON THE EVE OF THE VOTE.” In that day’s paper, the Times also ran its first-ever profile of Donald Trump. It began like this: “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford. He rides around town in a silver Cadillac…”
The news has a color. What is it?
An interviewer once asked Eggleston, “What do you believe in?”
“Nothing,” he said.
The interviewer pressed. Eggleston, slightly ruffled, responded, “I believe in science. That’s quite enough.”
Angela Chen is a Taiwanese-American text-image artist. Her photographs have appeared in The Margins and The Paris Review. She is one half of Chen Sisters Looking at Things. Born in Los Angeles, she currently lives and works in Brooklyn. Follow her @anchi.chen