Los Alamos, a set of William Eggleston’s color photographs developed from negatives made between 1965 and 1974, reminds me of the tagline from the 1969 film Easy Rider: “A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere … ” The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s introductory wall text notes that the exhibition’s images were taken on a series of road trips with the photographer’s friends Walter Hopps and Dennis Hopper. Even without the explicit Dennis Hopper connection, Eggleston’s images evoke a Hopperesque alienation: they pay homage to certain American ideals, like the lone cowboy or the expansiveness of the American west, and yet when touching on themes of consumerism, poverty, and racism they maintain a telling distance.
In his well-known 1976 introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide, MoMA curator John Szarkowski wrote: “Whither the South? or Whither America? … The fact is that Eggleston’s pictures do not seem concerned with large questions of this sort. They seem concerned simply with describing life.” This formalist approach to viewing Eggleston has persisted, and the photographer himself has contributed to keeping any thematically minded readings of his photographs in check. In a 1989 Aperture interview with Charles Hagen, Eggleston said:
I’ve seen many pictures that are about the southernness of the South — the sense that it’s a separate culture with its own history, its own ethos. And I’d rather not be associated with those kinds of images … for me there’s no surprise in photographs of that sort.
Eggleston is rightly hailed as a genius of color photography and pondering the beauty of his images can overwhelm any other interpretation. For example, “En Route to New Orleans” (c. 1971–74) shows a hand stirring a drink resting on a plane’s tray table. Out of the window small white clouds float in a blue sky, and light streams through the glass, creating a shadow refracted in yellow and red. This burnt-hued reflection, filled with sparkle and depth, is exquisite. The image might touch on themes of American luxury (is it Coke in the glass?), the allure of alcohol (whiskey?), or the meaning of a hand’s disembodiment, but all interpretations deflate when confronted with the perfection of the photograph’s aesthetics. The same could be said about “New Mexico” (c. 1971–74), which shows a big western sky, fluffy white clouds set against gorgeous blues.
While all of the images in Los Alamos have a distracting beauty, there are some whose subject matter cannot be discounted. “Louisiana” (c. 1971–74) displays a row of figurines — two are racist depictions of black men and the others are chickens. In the foreground is a small statue of black man holding a watermelon. The mundane placement of an object that is so clearly a cultural repository of stereotypes, servitude, and violence renders the photo extremely disturbing. And in “Mississippi” (c. 1971–74), a rusted water fountain is set against the backdrop of a brick wall, its shadow looming large behind it. It’s impossible to view a water fountain in Mississippi as strictly an object, separate from the history of segregation.
Eggleston, born in 1939, spent his childhood between his grandparents’ cotton plantation in Memphis and his parents’ house in Sumner, a town of about five hundred where Emmett Till’s killers were acquitted in 1955. It’s unlikely that Eggleston would be unaware of the themes his work suggests, and yet his vision remains detached; themes like segregation are dealt with only obliquely.
In the Trump era it is easy, and definitely reductive, to see everything as either a product/reflection of or rebellion against a quintessential American rottenness. And yet, there is something in the distance with which Eggleston’s photographs deal with American racism, poverty, and consumerism — an irony, alienation, and detachment — that frustrate a contemporary viewer. The Coca-Cola logo is a recurring motif throughout Eggleston’s photographs. Run-down buildings, rusting signs, old appliances, and broken things are a repeated aspect of many of the exhibition’s photos. Even the title — Los Alamos — referring to the locale where the atomic bomb was invented is hardly innocuous. It is not Eggleston’s role to make his photography more overtly political, but as a viewer in this moment it’s hard not to feel frustrated that America still often does not name a thing for what it is. Our culture mythologizes and fetishizes images of consumerism. We look for culture or beauty in the poverty that should be unacceptable in an industrialized country.
It is highly doubtful that Eggleston meant his photos to provoke such reaction. Rather, it is revealing of the current moment — burgeoning movements for liberal change battling a severely conservative backlash — that they do.