About the spirits in the photography of William Eggleston and Juan Aballe.

John Szarkowski, who was photography curator at the MOMA in New York between 1962 and 1991, has noted it clearly in his essay introducing William Eggleston’s Guide: “Attempting to translate these appearances (i.e. Eggleston’s pictures of the landscape and the figures from his childhood region in the American South) into words is surely a fool’s errand, in the pursuit of which no two fools would choose the same unsatisfactory words.”


© William Eggleston

This would be quiet a frustrating starting point for us, poor fools, if  Szarkowski would not have clarified his assertion  in many different ways throughout his 10 pages essay. According to Szarkowski, Eggleston would be presenting his subjects not as in a social document; Eggleston’s work would be as hermetic as a family album;  it would be consistently local, even insular, in its nominal concerns; it would not be imbedded in the photographic romantic tradition that involves the adoptation and adaptation of large public issues (social or philosophical) for private artistic ends.


© William Eggleston

Still according to Szarkowski, the subjects in William Eggleston’s Guide are “simply present: clearly realized, precisely fixed, themselves, in the service of no extraneous roles. …. We see uncompromisingly private experience described in a manner that is restrained, austere, and public, a style not inappropriate for photographs that might be introduced as evidence in court.”

And that is why the famous curator could not but conclude that “If our concern is for the meaning, verbal descriptions are finally gratuitous.”

Is there a photography critic who would dare to question an assertion by John Szarkowski, to whom they are all so much indebted?  Certainly not, especially because Eggleston himself  allegedly has declared that his pictures are no more than a pretext for the making of color photographs!


© William Eggleston

But, when it comes to the interpretation of Eggleston’s pictures, Szarkoswki has also reached a way out of the fool’s position of the art historian or, fot the matter, photobook bloggers. There is room for speculation in his view but all speculation about pictures “only relates to the pictures themselves not to the real world. A picture is after all only a picture, a concrete kind of fiction, not to be admitted as hard evidence or as the quantifiable data of social scientists.”

This is good news, but before we will satisfy our existantial needs by filling the room for speculation we need to remind that Szarkowski is the man that found, encouraged and promoted to prominence  not only William Eggleston but also Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. In the obituary by Jim Lewis we read that the list of artists he championed and sustained also includes Walker Evans, Ansel Adams and Eugene Atget.

All these photographers have in common at least one thing, namely that their pictures never meet the common expectations we might have of The American Way of Life or The American Dream. Their works have rather become those critiques of American culture that are still determining (at least in the language of photography) today’s authors .

Discussing photographers like the one who Szarkowski promoted has thus become the not always so easy issue of discussing one’s own culture, one’s own cradle. Bearing this in mind and coming back to William Eggleston’s Guide, Szarkwoski was “startled and exhilirated to see pictures of prototypically normal types on their familiar ground who,” and here it comes, seem to live surrounded by spirits, not all of them benign.”

Hahaha! This one about the spirits – not all of them benign – is where it’s at! It would be hilarious to think of the characters in William Eggleston’s Guide being unrelentingly haunted by naughty spirits if the pictures were not made on the very same grounds that only a few decades before were soaked with the sweat and the blood of the slaves (Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, Black Bayou Plantation, ….). And the pictures are not hilarious at all. The characters in the book seem to be very much painstaken by feelings of fear or at least discomfort with their surroundings.


© William Eggleston


© William Eggleston

Of course, how could the spirits in the South be “benign” or in good humour, while (in)visibly flying around the photographer’s aunts, cousins and friends or while taking a stroll through the neighborhoods, local streets and side streets of Memphis, Tennessee? For one thing, they still must have been very much angered by the fact that the Voting Rights Act by which the US government finally complied with Martin Luther King’s demands was passed only a few years before the pictures were made. (We all know where the opponents of the Civil Rights Movement mainly lived.)

Szarkowski, who must have had many discussions with Eggleston on the matter, very cunningly, seems to have taken a very critical position towards his own culture by introducing these spirits in his interpretation. This negative critique might be confirmed by his observation that Eggleston’s subjects seem to be capable not only of the familiar modern vices  (self-loathing, sanctimony and license) but also the ancient ones (pride, parochial stubborness, irrationality, selfishness and lust).


© William Eggleston


But let us end this post on a positive note by referring to some nice and, indeed also benign spirits, we think to have observed in a completely different and also recently published photobook.


© Juan Aballe

Juan Aballe published a really neat book with Fuego Books about his “relationship with the rural environment and the emotions brought about by the possibility of taking the big step of leaving the city and living closer to nature.

What we get are carefully made and carefully represented pictures of people who seem to be liberated from the neuroses and manias that big city people have to deal with. “Carefully” seems to be the appropriate word here because all these characters seem to be caring about something very essential that has become rare in (or at least closed to) the consumerist culture in the larger urban regions of the West.


© Juan Aballe

Aballe’s characters (as opposed to Eggleston’s) seem to have a healthy relationship with their own nature and with the rural world in which they are living. The characters show fearlesness towards the photographer (or spectator) and trust towards the future. They seem to have attracted the right spirits around themselves and their beloved ones. Their enterprise, it must be said, is all the more impressive because Spain is a country that is massively struck by what is commonly called “the crisis”. It s rural communities are disappearing fast and one needs to have a very good plan to go and live there today.


© Juan Aballe


© Juan Aballe

In this context, you might wonder, whether Juan Aballe managed to find a buccolic paradise or an oasis in the economic desert which is Spain? Unfortunately the answer is negative. All that what counted for the speculations about Eggleston’s work evidently also counts for Aballe’s and that is why we did not mention the book‘s title yet. Country Fictions!


© Juan Aballe


David Nollet