Introduction to The Democratic Forest
by Eudora Welty
The Democratic Forest, a most remarkable and beautiful book, is what is even rarer, and original one. Consisting entirely of the eloquent photographs of the American photographer William Eggleston, it begins as an autobiography might, with a setting for a life.
The opening photograph shows us a quiet and cared-for breadth of meadow, field and pastureland, set back at an easeful distance from its road, led to through a line of wide-spaced trees in the leafing spring of the year, protected on the upper side by an arm of the old forest. A sentinel shade tree stands beside the open-doored barn. The caption reads: 'Early spring at Mayfair, my family plantation in Sunflower County.' The place has been photographed in its tender rural colours. No one is in view.
I think with this we have received the first signal that this book of photographs--he has made it wholly his own--is a result of personal choosing, that it will proceed to form itself, as it opens out, into a personal whole. We won't expect the photographs to be fitted into the kind of sequence that would confine such a freedom; the order is, to my mind, the much more significant one of cohesion, of affinity with human values. The body of photographs before us might, with cause, be seen as the culmination of Mr. Eggleston's long and distinguished career.
All the photographs have place as their subject. From Mayfair on, places appear to have loomed large for William Eggleston. Now a resident of Memphis, he has been spending his life making exemplary photographs of the world around him and thereby recording its ways. These photographs that begin with his home place, which is in Mississippi, radiate widely over the United States, touch on Europe, go as far as the Berlin Wall. He has called his book The Democratic Forest, a title to embrace all he shows us.
The photographs range widely, they are highly differing, richly varying. In landscapes, cityscapes, street scenes, roadside scenes, at every sort of public converging-point, in dreaming long view and arresting close-up, through hours of dark and light, he sets forth what makes up our ordinary world. What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question; familiarity will be what overwhelms us.
The extraordinary thing is that in all these photographs, wonderfully inclusive and purposefully chose as they are, you will look in vain for the presence of a human being. This isn't to say that the photographs deny man's existence. That is exactly what they don't do. Everywhere you find the vividness of his presence:
Here's a close-up of an outdoor cooker and a bloody hatchet laid down up it, called 'Near the River.'
Here's the already stripped and de-wheeled front end of a red sports car, at rest under a tree by the Interstate; its radiator grille bites the dust. It seems a personal artifact, like an upper plate of a set of false teeth that's been lost on someone's way between one place and the next.
On a temporary hoarding at a construction site in Memphis, some hand wielding a stick dipped in soft tar has left a drawing of a big bridge spread like the wings of a bird over the chopping waves, and has tried to spell 'Memphis' and succeeded, to the last touch of turning the 'S' into a dollar sign.
Here is a just-vacated counter in a fast-foods road stop. It is stacked with uncleared plastic plates, all dripping red, like a police scene-of-the-crime photo complete with its message to you ('Catch me before I kill again') written in tomato ketchup.
But the camera tells us nobody is there. The indelible exception is the young child photographed standing alone on a desolate street corner in some city: he stares back at the camera with the gravity of the homeless. He, too, is tenaciously present in other scenes while remaining invisible.
Indeed, Mr. Eggleston's masterly photographs of places draw their strength and their significance from his never losing his own very acute sight of the human factor. The human being--the perpetrator of or the victim or the abandoner of what we see before us--is the reason why these photographs of place have their power to move and disturb us; they always let us know that the human being is the reason they were made.
He has photographed every tell-tale thing we leave behind us, from leaking oil to spilled Coca-Cola. He has looked up and caught the emanations of the Great Smoky Mountains, and a mist very like a ghost that appears to be drifting over a graveyard and near Oxford, Mississippi. In photographing ivy crowding over a wall, in commotion as lively as a townful of Breughel peasants, he has got a picture of a country breeze. He moves his camera close upon a great worldly peony; our glimpse into that is as good as a visit: a bloom so full-open and spacious that we could all but enter it, sit down inside and be served tea. It was photographed, according to the caption, on the Boston Common across from the Ritz Hotel--which is the next thing to photographing an analogy. In effect, he can lay our own hand on texture and substance. He puts between our finger and thumb the slipperiness of a leaf only in that moment coming out on the budding tree. Indeed, this is what his skill performs: it makes what it shows accessible.
But one photograph includes: old tyres, Dr. Pepper machines, discarded air-conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles and power wires, street barricades, one-way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees crowding the same kerb. 'Karco' (p.38) reaches the saturation point of sign-occupied space.
His camera, held at weed level, shows us weeds close-to, shoving up their saw-toothed leaves through a crack in the pavement and, at a distance back in the same frame, Atlanta's skyscrapers on the rise too, proliferating and more rampant than weeds. Skyscrapers rear up like bullies planning to overrun the city, or running the city, from on high. He moves about the skylines of Miami, Atlanta, Pittsburgh. No last drop of humanity could come from what we've built as fortifications. He tests it with a view of the Texas State Book Depository in Dallas, indelible in the world's memory as the source of the gunshots that killed President John F. Kennedy.
Indeed, when Mr. Eggleston photographs the tall and darkened shafts rising, vacated, from the emptied night-time streets, he brings to mind 'two vast and trunkless legs of stone' in the desert of the 'antique land' and the inscription that remain on their ruined pedestal: 'I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
These extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree. The photographs have cut it straight through the center.
They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world! When you see what the mundane world so openly and multitudinously affirms, there is everything left to say. Mr. Eggleston's camera brings it forth. His fine and scrupulous photographs achieve beauty. All that they have to tell us, in all their variety, reaches us through the beauty of the work.
There is especial beauty in his sensitive and exacting use of color, its variations and intensities. We see the celestial blue of burning trash, the golden cloak of sunlight, or blight; the slip of a tree trying to push its way up one more time through one more crack in the parking-lot pavement is a lyrical green. But particularly there is red: the banner red of Coca-Cola signs a hundred strong, the Sienese red of rust, further and further intensities of red, the deeper into the city we go: red caught in the act of spreading, hectic and alarming, collecting and running at large through the intersections like a contagion. Solid reds: the interior of a Memphis Krystal Hamburger house, furnishings and all, a creation entirely in ruby-red plastic. Throbbing reds, like vibrations being given off by the traffic.
Time in The Democratic Forest is the galvanic present, but as we were earlier made aware, the past, in its flickerings and shadowings, is also integral to the book. (I take it as the viewer's standing privilege of turning back to the book's beginning if the need is felt to re-visit it for freshly discovered reasons.) In the home place--any home place in the world--the long view is the one like memory's view: it shows us everything at once.
Turning again through the photographs of Mayfair, exterior and interior, we may apprehend and respond to the essential matters of human presence and human absence. Here is the Eggleston photograph of the family portraits set out on a library table top--a solid row of ancestors that's as calming as an unrocked boat. And, in the attic now, his camera lifts close-up to the roof-beam, into which the hand that hewed it also carved--the camera lets us read them--the initials attesting to that mysterious thing, original ownership.
But this book's our portrait. We must see that. We should be prepared to see the portrait as a candid one, taken in a flash of inspired insight, at the psychological moment.
It is a forthright and brave book; it is made with the bravery required of an artist.
The autobiographical work, like much else that is autobiographical, can be taken as well for a set of visions. If only in this respect, the autobiographical approach to The Democratic Forest has engaged us all in its implication.
Our own way of seeing may have recently been in trouble. These days, not only the world that we look out upon but the human eye itself seems at times occluded, as if a cataract had thickened over it from within. We have become used to what we live with, caloused (perhaps in self-protection) to what's happened to the world outside our door, and we now accept its worsening. But the Eggleston vision of his world is clear, and clarifying to our own.
In his own country, we have always valued William Eggleston's work for its clarity, veracity, strength of intention. Perhaps we couldn't have known until weĠd met it in this book, seen it at work, the strength of imagination that conceived it, shaped it, and consistently informed it all.
Actually, what we have here is a set of visions. Like a magician, William Eggleston has raised them out of light colour, smoke and an absence of people.
Visions or not, he remains a photographer who never trifles with actuality: he works with actuality, and within it--the self-evident and persisting world confronted by us all.
The human being, unseen, remains the reason these photographs of place carry such power to move and disturb us--and, by the end, somewhat hearten us.
A clear spring rises somewhere on the home place, for the human strain begins there for Mr. Eggleston, and we see it in what follows: it turns into a river that runs through, or underneath, every place succeeding it. Whatever is done to block it or stop its flow, it surfaces again. Pure human nature provides itself in likely or unlikely places.
- Eudora Welty