Still At War With The Obvious?

Richard Marley, the legal owner, until 1987, of the of the Black Bear Commune, Siskiyou County, California that was founded in 1968, said before he died that ‘Life is like launching a boat into a smooth lake and sailing it to the centre, where it sinks.” He also said that had he known he was dying fifty years earlier he might have attended differently to many features of his life, but I digress.

A Yacht in Calm Blue Water - Image © Stephen Bray

"Life is like launching a boat into a smooth lake . . . "

I thought for a long while that his analogy about the boat is wrong. I considered such a voyage pretty much the best most of us may hope for. After all many, myself included, have at times been found to be abroad in choppy seas, and occasionally we’ve had to bale, or even cling to the capsized craft before the sun came up and calm returned and we could right it.

Richard Marley was wiser than me though, for his analogy is less about what appears to occur around us, and more about the mind’s calm response to it.

It’s a pretty amazing insight from someone who founded a commune with the aim that all people could live freely within its grounds because life in America back then was anything but peaceful.

He was dying when he said it.

At War With The Obvious‘ is the name of a collection of photographs by William Eggleston, also an American. It fell to Eggleston to change the nature of ‘Art Photography’ from being a medium dominated by black and white prints to a colour medium. He did so by having his transparencies printed using the expensive dye transfer process, which until then was only used for commercial projects. As a result his images radiated tones in ways that most had not associated with ‘reality’.

It’s likely, of course, that had Eggleston not taken this step then someone else would eventually have done so. Had it not been the dye transfer process that was used, most likely developments in conventional colour processes, or even ink-jet, would have turned the tide.

But Eggleston. a laconic gentleman from the Deep South whose acceptance speech at the Getty Lifetime Achievement Award in Photography was to utter: ‘ I am sure for me it was worth coming here ‘, is more revolutionary than simply a guy who woke up one morning and loaded his camera with colour film. He has a vision, some would call it an eye.

With it Eggleston is able to take an image of the mundane, strip it of any emotion especially sentimentality, tweak it in the camera so that you’re forced to wonder – ‘could it really be like this?’

There are only two other well known photographers who came close to Eggleston’s vision during the last century. Paul Strand had the insight to create abstract images in the manner of the Modernist Painters. His image of Wall Street, for example, predates Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis, yet conveys much of the same feeling.

Wall Street Paul Strand 1915, Public Domain Image via Wikipedia


Strand was doing this back in 1915. The other photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson, a man with a different style of ‘shooting’ but with a similar eye for form within human dramas.

Someone once said of Cartier-Bresson, on the occasion of an exhibition celebrating his 90th year, ‘If God had been given a camera and photographed the twentieth century the images would have been like those of Cartier-Bresson’. I think he was wrong. Although some of the pictures no doubt would have been similar many, I believe, would have shared much more in common with those of William Eggleson.

Pictures really ought to speak for themselves. Critics have written reams on Eggleston, who has said practically nothing about his work except that he enjoys doing it. His philosophy reminds me, somewhat, of that of the late Douglas Harding the man immortalised in a song by ‘The Incredible String Band’ as ‘The Man With No Head’. The track is named after a slim, popular, work by Harding of the same name. It’s still in print. Put it in your Christmas stocking. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Within the covers you’ll find an image not dissimilar from one of the four self-portraits that Henri Cartier-Bresson made. In this case it was taken in Italy in 1933. You can see the photographers torso legs and feet, which blend into the street beyond. A male figure in the distance beares witness to the event. I won’t explain it. I’ll leave you to get the picture.

Eggleston’s images have the same feel as that picture, but without the torso, legs and feet. In monochrome they would appear stark and cold as indeed might be said of his early work before he adopted colour. In bright colour though, something amazing happens. A miracle is revealed. Not only is there colour, there is also love.