Picks and Pans Review: The Democratic Forest

updated 04/09/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/09/1990 01:00AM

by William Eggleston

A tall, dark, Southern gentleman of independent means, William Eggleston drives around taking color photographs—blizzards of them—that are as similar and as individual as snowflakes. Eggleston, 50, shoots everything and nothing—a display of tools outside a hardware store in Mississippi, a slice of sunlight brightening a patch of floor on an airplane, a boy in an orange T-shirt studying a pistol advertisement in a magazine.

Wherever he aims his camera—through the window of a red coffee shop in his native Memphis, at a construction site in downtown Dallas, at a radiator on a tiled wall in Berlin—he creates scenes of arresting beauty and mystery. From the colors and shapes that everywhere besiege the eye, Eggleston crystallizes an uncanny order—layered, kinetic yet serene. His pictures make the world that humans have created seem outlandish and haphazard and prodigal and burdened—and at the same time wondrous.

Since Eggleston became a cult figure with his show at New York's MOMA in 1976, commentators have overlooked the balance of feelings in his work. He photographs vulgarity, decay and sterility. But his pictures aren't hip dismissals. Though their emotional pitch is cool, their palette is too sensuous, their form too lively, to be a surrender to dread and atomization.

Eggleston is out to transcend the common chaos without denying its omnipresence. One way he does this is by embracing the world—or rather by valuing and organizing each little piece of it that enters his viewfinder, making each picture a democratic forest (as well as a tree in the democratic forest that is the book).

He may have inherited this leveling aesthetic from photographer Lee Friedlander, a master of composition as conundrum, but he has given it a spiritual, not just an intellectual, dimension. The Democratic Forest, a project Eggleston began in 1983, numbers 10,000 prints and is still growing (the book's 151 images are a triumph of selection and sequencing). Its size is not so surprising. Eggleston is tuned in to the sublime harmonies that swirl within cacophony. Driving along with his ever present Leica on the front seat, he can't help but see beauty and magic everywhere. (Doubleday, $50)

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