JOHN SZARKOWSKI, INTRODUCTION TO WILLIAM EGGLESTON'S GUIDE//June 29, 2012 at 08:16 am / THEORY [Essays] At this writing I have not yet visited Memphis, or northern Mississippi, and thus have no basis for judging how closely the photographs in this book might seem to resemble that part of the world and the life that is lived there. I have, however, visited other places described by works of art, and have observed that the poem or picture is likely to seem a faithful document if we get to know it first and the unedited reality afterwards - whereas a new work of art that describes something we had known well is likely to seem as unfamiliar and arbitrary as our own passport photos.
Thus if a stranger sought out in good season the people and places described here they would probably seem clearly similar to their pictures, and the stranger would assume that the pictures mirrored real life. It would be marvelous if this were the case, if the place itself, and not merely the pictures, were the work of art. It would be marvelous to think that the ordinary, vernacular life in and around Memphis might be in its quality more sharply incised, formally clear, fictive, and mysteriously purposeful than it appears elsewhere, endowing the least pretentious of raw materials with ineffable dramatic possibilities. Unfortunately, the character of our skepticism makes this difficult to believe; we are accustomed to believing instead that the meaning in a work of art is due altogether to the imagination and legerdemain of the artist.
Artists themselves tend to take absolutist and unhelpful positions when addressing themselves to questions of content, pretending with Degas that the work has nothing to do with ballet dancers, or pretending with James Agee that it has nothing to do with artifice. Both positions have the virtue of neatness, and allow the artist to answer unanswerable questions briefly and then get back to work. If an artist were to admit that he was uncertain as to what part of the content of his work answered to life and what part to art, and was perhaps even uncertain as to precisely where the boundary between them lay, we would probably consider him incompetent.
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