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Sunday, August 14, 2016


There's a forum I poke at pretty regularly to try to keep a finger on the pulse of the dumbest parts of the photography-verse. In it there was a recent thread about William Eggleston, and there was a little flurry of the sorts of responses you'd expect from idiots. They're just bad photos (whatever that even might mean - in this context it probably means that they look nothing like bottom-feeder Lifestyle Photos) Snapshots and I don't get it. Not to suggest that everyone should be an Art History major, but 5 minutes on wikipedia would enable pretty much anyone to say something more intelligent along with the I don't like it statement.

Anyways, one of the I don't like it crowd suggested that probably people like Eggleston because they are "primed" to like him. We've heard that he's important, that he's good, so we try to find a reason to like the pictures. This poster phrased it as a dismissal, essentially suggesting that people are "tricked" by the critics and the Art Establishment into liking something that he doesn't like, that is, which is objectively shit.

The thing is, this sort of "priming" is why we like everything. What art do you like? What books do you like? What music? You like it because of all that you have absorbed in this society. You like it because the critics like it (or hate it), and because your Mom likes it (or doesn't) and because your friends like it. This is the nature of these intersubjective experiences, more or less by definition. Art is, literally, good because society decrees it to be good.

Not liking Eggleston isn't a sin, he's not the most approachable photographer ever. Dismissing him as "bad" or a mere maker of "snapshots", dismissing people who do like or appreciate his work as victims of a scam, these merely mark you as an ignorant rube. You might as well fabricate a scarlet R and wear it out around town. It is one thing to disagree with the social consensus, that's perfectly normal and often reasonable. To deny that a social consensus exists, or to dismiss it as irrelevant, is to be a flat-earther.

Also, "priming" is a term of art in psychology which doesn't mean this really at all, but I dare say if we're careful we can get away with the usage here.


  1. You've really been hitting your stride lately, AM -- it's a shame to be yelling into the vast empty bucket called "August"...

    The link between "elitist scam", "I just don't get it", and the appeal of Donald Trump won't have escaped you. More than ever, the role of education as the only ladder out of the swamp is essential. That, and a certain humility before those beckoning us to join them on the high, dry ground...

    On the other hand, it's worth contemplating what "democracy" means in the work of a man like Eggleston. After all these years, I still don't really know what "The Democratic Forest" means... Does he think we are all equally lost in it? Is there a better place?


    1. It is described as "more than 1000" photographs taken from a body of 12,000. Given Eggleston's shooting technique I have to wonder if this isn't essentially everything.

      Perhaps it is the metaphorical forest from which he has previously harvested the "trees" we have all seen. That would be a pretty good joke.

      I'm not sure if I want to see this thing.

  2. I wouldn't call this "priming"; more appropriate is, in my opinion, "visual literacy". This can be achieved by looking at lots and lots of pictures and caring about their background and context in the history of arts. This post fits nicely with a former post of yours, about Ming Thein's statement about "creators" vs. "consumers".

    Best, Thomas

  3. I would have to include myself as one of the great unwashed who just do not get William Eggleston, though I have not given up trying. Maybe I am rube after all?

    What I found interesting is the story where a small subset of society has gathered together and pronounced that while it may look like a con job to the rubes, if you stick with it, put the hours in to be educated, and look below the surface you will indeed see the pixie dust. Now am I talking about the Eggleston blog or the old Nikon is the new Leica blog? I guess it depends on which side of the street you walk on.

    I suspect that you could apply this approach to just about anything and as a result there is always someone who will value something highly that the majority dislike. Perhaps we just have to prime people properly.

    While it is easy to criticize I think that those with the minority view should be willing to help the rubes understand. Let us see the emperor’s clothes. But it had better be more than pixie dust.


    1. Well, you certainly don't have to like Eggleston. Not 'getting' it might be iffy territory, depending on what you mean, I suppose?

      It's dismissing the whole enterprise that's naive. We're not talking about clothing here. These things are intangibles.

      It's more like money, which is just a shared hallucination. You can love it, hate it, ignore it, but dismissing it as not a real thing because it's just a fiction created by the central banks is silly.

      If the head of the central bank starts talking about the Emperor's new currency, it would behoove you to attend, even if you can't see the coins. You needn't agree with our understand the monetary policy. But it is all real, in some useful sense.

  4. Up until a couple of years ago, I could only appreciate Eggleston and like a few of his more accessible images, but I completely didn't "get" him. Then I watched a very insightful documentary, and was almost instantly won over. I certainly don't think anybody needs to like any particular artist, but to be dismissive of an artist for which many, many gifted artistic photographers, curators, and critics have sustained praise is just, well, ignorant, if not stupid. A similar experience can be had by watching Leonard Bernstein's Harvard lectures on Berg - not accessible, but foolish to dismiss.