In 1974 photographer William Eggleston produced an extraordinary series of nightclub portraits documenting the club scene in and around Memphis, Tennessee.
Simultaneously, he was working in the same locations with an early video camera, documenting on tape many of the same people who appear in the accompanying still pictures. Both photographs and videotape were intended to be shown together. They were destined, however, to lie unexhibited until the stills were finally brought together in book form in 2006.
The pictures, collectively exhibited under the title 5 × 7 (the film format they were shot on) and a full length edit of the video work entitled ‘Stranded in Canton’, are shown together for the first time, in Portraits 1974, at Inverleith House in Edinburgh.
For those familiar with Eggleston’s past work, the exhibition is a revelation. As a photographer credited as the founding father of contemporary colour photography, he is perhaps best known for his beautiful dark, gothic work documenting the landscape in and around the Deep South.
At this showing, however, we are invited to look at a very specific body of work, produced within the relatively short time frame of a year, and also around a specific theme. Eggleston’s recording of the drugs and music scene in and around Memphis must have seemed like a natural progression from his images taken around his hometown, Memphis.
It is useful to know that Eggleston was himself very much part of this scene at that time and familiar with many of the characters who play their parts with both Stranded in Canton and the 5 × 7 portraits. I say useful, but perhaps not surprising. The first impression as you look at these extraordinary works are of the complete ease and languor of their subjects. This is perhaps unsurprising in the context of the nightclub pictures but all the portraits shown here, not just those shot at night in club land, display this extraordinary openness.
All of the works were shot on a big studio camera resulting in very large, finely detailed negatives. And Eggleston’s camera picks up the smallest detail; on the shoulder of one subject (unusually, an older man—most of the subjects are young—in their early 20s) a small sprinkling of dandruff has fallen onto the sombre black jacket. In another, a floral dress is rendered in almost forensic detail. A silver cross around a young girl’s neck takes on a particular significance. All of these normally overlooked details are captured in these beautiful and lucid portraits, which can be read more like a painting than a traditional photograph, where the smallest (and perhaps most telling) details are often lost.
The subjects of the works themselves appear both familiar with and strangely distanced from the presence of the photographer. They appear either unaware or utterly unperturbed by the camera’s presence. The result is a series of unguarded and perceptive images, absolutely democratic in their avoidance of the romantic. Eggleston’s unique talent is to produce images that are both tender and rigorously unsentimental.
There is an undeniable beauty but also an underlying pathos to these images that is underscored by knowledge that a number of Eggleston’s subjects died relatively young. Meanwhile, these portraits remain, like flies locked in amber. Beautiful and immutable, unforgettable.
Wendy McMurdo is a photographer