Vintage ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ at the NGV

Try as I might I just can’t get myself worked up into a rage about the ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ hang at the NGV. In fact I quite liked it. The show which was shipped out to Australia from London’s portrait gallery contained two new large scale digital enlargements from scans of his 1970s negatives to entice punters into the space; and then, cue gasp, new digital prints alongside ‘vintage’ 1970s dye-transfer prints. I agree with one colleague who pointed out that it’s a shame the opportunity was missed to show Australia’s own Eggleston dye-transfer portraits, including the super-iconic ‘Huntsville Alabama’ c1969-70, only in this show as a new digital print, which is sitting in all its dye-transfer glory in a solander box up in Canberra. And I could immediately see for myself that the London portrait gallery’s addition of gossipy back stories to some, but not all, of the prints seriously corrupted the totality of Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ vision. But, standing back from the walls a few metres, the mixture of print technologies visually ‘scanned’ together coherently for me, and when I got up close I loved the warm toothsomeness of the dye transfers, of course, but also thought the dry stipple of the new digital prints was pretty good too in its own way. And why can’t Eggleston agree to make large scale enlargements for the kids who, brought up on giant face-mounted acrylic museum photography, are used to big prints? He’s still alive, he can make his own decisions. Once lured inside, the kids found themselves treated to a selection of his small black and white ‘vintage’ work prints from the early sixties which I saw them eagerly poring over. This fetishisation of the vintage print, vocalised by the tuts directed towards this hang, can’t sustain itself for much longer. Before all of their other elaborations, most photographs (OK, not daguerreotypes and not iPhones) are in two parts: negative/print, capture/display. The vintage print may be the ordinary gallery-goer’s safest path to directly accessing the artist’s vision at the time the work was conceived, no question, but photographers, particularly photographers like Eggleston, are shooters as well as printers. Negative and print are separate objects, separated even ‘about the time the negative was made’ by separate technologies which activated different sets of substrate, pigment, halide, dye, coupler and bleach in different ways. They were divergent even in this mythical and temporally undefinable prelapsarian ‘vintage’ time, and they haven’t got more divergent since, only the technological nature of their divergence has changed. The supply/demand market-based logic of editioning photographs is alien to the fundamental nature of photography, it was imported into photography from manual printmaking conventions by gallerists trying to make a buck more recently than you realise. (Dupain never editioned ‘Sunbaker’ for example, he just wearily put the neg in the enlarger one more time whenever he was asked.) Also fundamentally alien to photography is setting up the print as the capital of all photographic aesthetics. Where would you rather look to find an old street photographer’s original intention, at a faded and severely colour-shifted type-c print made in some dodgy darkroom, or at a pigment print made from a fresh scan of the original negative? But which will get the higher price in a gallery? Those of us who aren’t in the print fetishists club are told we lack discrimination. Quite the opposite. We are quite capable of discriminating the nuances of different camera AND print technologies, and understanding them in terms of the technological history of photography, which includes deterioration of negative and print in different ways at different rates. But unfortunately our task isn’t helped by the lazy labels in the Eggleston show where the different exposure and printing dates are deliberately fudged, and viewers are encouraged to not discriminate. (Thanks to Geoff, Justine, Danica, Jane, Bronwyn and Isobel!)

One thought on “Vintage ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ at the NGV

  1. For a non-specialist, the discourse about editioning and printmaking is thought-provoking.

    But please use paragraph breaks Martin.

    Like

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