Nowhere Man

William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest begins with a single tree. Then, across ten volumes and more than a thousand photographs, we see a collective landscape, a vision that sweeps around the United States and overseas, through city centers and to the most forlorn edges of forest on a country road. But in the opening images, we are squarely in the American South, with an open ruin of a building, a gray storm waiting at the end of a road’s curve, the shell of a formal plantation house whose grand arcade has been overtaken by branches, neat crops stretching to a vanishing point. We are at a gravestone looking at a pile of fallen petals beneath a floral arrangement tied in a drooping pink bow, and near a building with painted theatermasks and the word dixie printed in block letters; in front of a fiery-colored door, unbolted, and then inside a restaurant or rest stop at countertop level looking toward a row of condiments, the hot sauce with that same red jolt.

More than any other project by Eggleston, these photographs deliver his aesthetic, which, as the title gives away, is also a philosophy of democracy:the power of the ordinary, the beauty of contingency, the aim of a universalist view. Theoriginal Democratic Forest was published in 1989, in a hardcover album edited by Mark Holborn, with an introduction by Eudora Welty, and featured 150 photographs selected from more than twelve thousand Eggleston took in travels around the US and Europe between 1980 and 1988. He saw his forestas “one long project”; some twenty-six years later, Steidl’s boxed set arrives to realize this vision, reproducing many photographs that have never been published before.

Compared to Eggleston’s iconic images from the 1970s, often published in photobooks—that ominous tricycle seen from a suburban Memphis curb; the bare bulb on the bloodred ceiling that became a Big Star album cover; the hand stirring a drink in a square of light on an airplane; a black servant and a white man at a funeral, both of them with their hands awkwardly stuffed in their pockets, which appeared on the cover of ArtforumThe Democratic Forest is as subdued as it is sprawling. Its title refers to Eggleston’s self-described “method of photographing—the idea that one could treat the Lincoln Memorial and an anonymous street corner with the same amount of care, and that the resulting two pictures would be equal, even though one place is a great monument and the other might be a place you’d like to forget.”

What does it mean to photograph a place you’d like to forget? And to have an image that will never allow you to forget it? In exploring such questions, Eggleston extends the work of one of his heroes, Lee Friedlander, whose 1976 black-and-white photobook, The American Monument, offered portraits of famous and forgotten historic markers taken on a meandering road trip across the country. Eggleston pushes that project’s low register even further into the ordinary. His 1989 afterword—reprinted along with Eudora Welty’s introduction in this new edition—recounts a telling anecdote about making The Democratic Forest. He was in Oxford, Mississippi, and someone asked, “What have you been photographing here today, Eggleston?” He replied, “Well, I’ve been photographing democratically.” “But what have you been taking pictures of?” “I’ve been outdoors, nowhere, in nothing.”

To be “nowhere, in nothing” isat the heart of Eggleston’s democratic view. Despite an acute specificity of detail, not much happens most of the time: Burrs collect curled dead leaves and wood chips on slate; geese congregate in blue sky; a cabless tractor-trailer is parked next to a building of the same gray, as if merging into it. The pictures’ sequencing creates subtle rhymes: a deflated red balloon on the ground and tomatoes sitting by a sink; the brown-and-green upholstery of a chair and air plants stuck in a grated door.

But at other times, we are startled by suggestions of drama in the landscape: We look down into a bright-orange carpet and the brown-leather toe of Eggleston’s shoe by a sliding-door frame, while on a concrete patio beyond, the shadows of slats fall across a handgun. Or we see a woman standing by her blue car in a parking lot, the white lines on the asphalt and a rainbow oil slick skewing the scene into some deep-space matrix.

Defensive against the threat of banality, Eggleston insists that he is “at war with the obvious.” These photographs underscore the fundamental rift between the ordinary and the obvious—a rift we don’t usually think about, let alone see revealed and explored. Not that the ordinary becomes extraordinary in them—Eggleston’s images don’t yield to that cliché, even when he captures an autumn tree perfectly camouflaged against the brick wall behind it, or a sleeping dog lying like a dead deer in a blazing patch of sunlight. But in their very ordinariness the images startle us—as if we have suddenly seen the pattern from our childhood-bedroom wallpaper. As Welty wrote in her introduction, “Familiarity will be what overwhelms us.”The obvious calls out. But the ordinary has to be recognized as such, and slowly built up, like the baker’s twine of what I’d call “Eggleston red” that runs through so many prints, a ubiquitous flash of color that reads as the photographer’s signature: that arresting hue of stop signs and advertisements (Marlboro packs and Coca- Cola), the stripes on a boy’s white sports socks and the American flag, diner ketchup and blood on an ax, Budweiser cans in the bed of a rusted pickup, and the rusted pickups themselves. The obvious announces its subject; the ordinary often oscillates between several things in a single shot: a broom, a bowl, a set of garden chairs.

It’s also much easier to portray the ordinary when you are familiar with the terrain. In the rare moments when Eggleston moves beyond the US to explore his democratic leanings farther afield, he drifts toward the obvious, and the pictures are less interesting. One of the volumes features photos from Berlin, and it’s the most predictable (graffitied wall, gray city). Eggleston is best in his own southern, American vernacular; his work, as the curator John Szarkowski described it, is “local and private, even insular, in its nominal concerns.”

One way of looking at democracy is as the protective container of our privacy; it is the collective defense of an ordinary, singular life. This fluctuation between community and self is everywhere in The Democratic Forest. And with it, there’s a certain sense of social unease, as we measure the promises of democracy against its disparities. Eggleston’s photographs move from junkyards to mansions, presenting them all in the same deadpan tone. Inequality is not their subject, but the everyday presence of its trauma is their texture: It’s hard to see a cotton field and not think of slavery.


Eggleston was born rich in Tennessee on the eve of World War II, and raised partly at Mayfair, his grandparents’ plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi. He attended three different colleges “on occasion” but never graduated, and never took a job other than photography. He dressed the dandy and drove nice cars. He famously claimed in the 1970s that his compositions were like the Confederate flag—a statement that today seems less forgivable in its provocation, though the reference was meant to mock clichés of Southerners and to suggest a certain organizational order (that red, that striking flatness that surfaces the image, the diagonal diffusion from the center; the ubiquity of the motif, particularly in rural Mississippi, whose state flag still includes the Confederate).

I mention these details because they are a part of the context of The Democratic Forest. Inherited privilege is undemocratic; Eggleston seems aware of this, compelled to find a wider perspective through this project. In this way, it is indebted to, but also divergent from, other seminal photographic takes on America in the twentieth century: by photographers who crisscrossed the country on government assignment from the 1930s through the ’60s; by artists like John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha, who displaced the aura of technical skill through a Conceptual focus on serial, amateur photography documenting actions and data; and by the emergence of a middle class who embraced the burgeoning postwar pastime of vacation snapshots–cum–slide shows.

Eggleston had a knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right people. He began taking photographs in earnest in the ’60s, after purchasing his first Leica, and received several fellowships in short order. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment and Walker Evans’s American Photographs were early influences, as were the regional pictures by his friend William Christenberry. In the late ’60s, Eggleston took a suitcase of black-and-white and color slide photographs to Szarkowski, the influential director at the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and to the curator Walter Hopps at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC (Hopps would later accompany Eggleston on many trips for The Democratic Forest). Szarkowski urged him to pursue his color work, and introduced him to Friedlander, as well as Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, all of whom had featured prominently in Szarkowski’s important “New Documents” exhibition in 1967 and were shifting photography’s subject to the periphery of American life.

Eggleston discovered the dye-transfer process in 1972, at the time the most expensive way to print color photographs (and therefore a process primarily used in advertising). The image was transposed to paper in three separate rounds of color, rendering it brighter and more stable; before digital photography—some might argue, even after—it was the best way to control the print’s end result and create an intense tonal saturation not unlike a painting. Four years later, MoMA staged his one-man show of color-dye prints. It was the first catalogue exhibition of color photography by a single artist there; Eggleston was thirty-six.

Reception of the MoMA show, which also traveled around the country, was mixed at best. It’s difficult to imagine, now that his “style” has been canonized and is pervasive, but “Photographs by William Eggleston” threatened a medium still struggling for institutional validity. (“Color is bullshit,” Cartier-Bresson told Eggleston at a dinner.) Szarkowski’s catalogue essay is preemptively defensive, a little overblown. He calls Eggleston’s photos “perfect.” But you can see where he’s coming from. Szarkowski used Eggleston as an example of the emerging group of photographers who worked, “not as though color were a separate issue, a problem to be solved in isolation . . . but rather as though the world itself existed in color, as though the blue and the sky were one thing.” Eggleston himself, when queried about his use of color, said in his laconic manner, “The way I have always looked at it is the world is in color. And there’s nothing we can do about that.” Edward Steichen had organized color-photography exhibitions at MoMA as early as 1950; it was how Eggleston showed color that was radical: The flat and jarring tonal quality of his prints, criticized in the ’70s and celebrated today, is in part due to the texture and context of their insistently ordinary subject matter. The sun through the trees is the same color as a derelict couch. Color is democratic.

This new collection makes us see Eggleston’s past work in another light beyond just aesthetic innovation, making clear that he’s long been engaged with what it means to belong to a democratic republic. While he was building his forest, Eggleston also took on commissioned assignments to cover election campaigns and Elvis Presley’s Graceland, in an ’80s update of Atget photographing Versailles. But until “Democratic Camera,” his 2008 survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, his work remained relatively under the radar, a cult favorite of artists, musicians, and writers.

Steidl has been steadily working to put Eggleston in wider circulation, and this anthology is cause for celebration. Returning to his 1989 project, Holborn edited the ten volumes with Eggleston’s son. It was a monumental task. Eggleston was living in “a sea of pictures. They were piled on the piano or dining room table and lay in stacks around his Memphis home”—a scene visible in one of the photos. Holborn and Eggleston III keep the pacing patient, the pairings subtle. The slender, square, clothbound volumes lack captions—a change from the geographic and at times personal tags in the 1989 edition—bringing the reader closer to the experience of flipping through a box of prints (Eggleston’s preferred way of looking at his own work).

The anthology’s digital scans show a little more around their edges than in the previous edition (whose negatives may have been masked for printing), but also a deeper color and detail that doesn’t always make for a better picture. And, some of Holborn and Eggleston III’s organizing principles across the volumes feel arbitrary: “The Interior” includes Serge Diaghilev’s outdoor grave, “The Forest” includes city scenes, and “The Surface” includes the pastoral. The image that began the 1989 publication is now one of the final pictures of the last volume. How these 850 additional photographs were chosen over the eleven thousand others isn’t clear. But then, such interchangeability is part of the project’s spirit. “I don’t have any favorites,” Eggleston has said. “Every picture is equal but different.”

Each of Eggleston’s photographs you have seen before, and never before seen—like ordinary language that we know and regularly use but that when put together in a particular way suddenly astonishes us. He talks about them as “parts of a novel I’m doing.” The novel, as a genre, was born of a democratic, heterogeneous vision of modern life that paid attention to specific details in the everyday, and to their subtle contingent turns—that same openness to multiple perspectives and a deliberate ordinariness that gives Eggleston’s photographs their compelling power. So it is no surprise that many novelists recognize Eggleston as one of their own. Donna Tartt called him “a great poet of the color red”; Rachel Kushner cited his manic, beer-and-Quaalude-binge video Stranded in Canton, ca. 1973–74, as an image prompt for her novel The Flamethrowers. Welty, one of the greatest storytellers of the South, adopted the photographer’s own deadpan delivery to wonderfully describe his practice: “His camera, held at weed level, shows us weeds close-to.”

The Democratic Forest is an autobiographical novel, or an auto-biographical one, since the vast majority of the pictures were taken from a car, on road trips around Louisiana, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, Miami, and Mississippi. There are many more photographs of cars than of people: in parking lots and alleyways, on highways and main streets, at gas stations and intersections, abandoned and en route. Like local color and quotidian detail—those other formal vehicles of the novel so prevalent in Eggleston’s photographs—they continually move us forward.

The last pages of the tenth volume, titled “The Finale,” build a quiet crescendo out of the hundreds of photographs that came before. We are confronted with a Day-Glo Betty Crocker Thanksgiving spread, followed by a row of cannons from the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh; an old graveyard near Oxford, Mississippi, in early-morning mist; open fields of young cotton and open skies of cottony clouds; and, on the last page, a rare self-portrait in a car’s rearview mirror, taken as if from a vantage point outside the self.

Eggleston allows history to show up as an ordinary part of the landscape. He abdicates a certain subjective authority, extending the democratic approach into the taking of the photo itself. “I think I had often wondered what other things see—if they saw like we see. And I’ve tried to make a lot of different photographs as if a human did not take them,” he explained. “Not that a machine took them, but that maybe something took them that was not merely confined to walking on the earth. And I can’t fly, but I can make experiments.” Eggleston once described his photo of a road as a “bee’s-eye-view”; he had held his camera above his head out the window of a car. The photographer introduces a koan: What would something look like if we weren’t there seeing it, which is to say, what would something look like if we didn’t bring our own sense of awareness to the looking? This is impossible to know. But such a communal perspective is often, in the genre of the novel, the structural aim of language. Eggleston’s genius in The Democratic Forest is to create images that are uniquely his and yet exist on their own as unparsable sentences: these scenes of nothing, full in and of and despite themselves.

Prudence Peiffer is an art historian and a senior editor of Artforum. She is currently finishing a book on Ad Reinhardt’s photography.