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William Eggleston and Tacoma

October 13th, 2009
I wrote this almost two months ago for another blog, but thought I’d put it up here.

I bought a book of William Eggleston’s photographs recently at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. They are the photos collected in the book titled Paris. Eggleston’s photos, when I first saw them more than ten years ago, were disturbing and thrilling to me in the way that it was, many years ago when I first started writing, disturbing and thrilling to read the short stories of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.

And so I have always loved William Eggleston’s photographs.

Eggleston’s photos make me think of Carver’s stories and Ford’s stories.  Except that those are stories I love, but don’t like to read.  Because those are short stories about people I grew up with. Stories about family of mine. Friends of mine. Houses I’d lived in.

They were disburbing stories. Stories that articulated what had happened down the street. In my basement. In my car. Carver and Ford wrote stories about lost, blue collar places like Tacoma, Washington, where I used to live and where I used to sometimes sleep in those big plywood newspaper drop boxes that, back then, were positioned around town. I used to roam all day in the vast, forgotten woods on the other side of the city, woods filled with beer cans and tires and metal objects of indeterminate purpose, woods that we called the gulch. Woods that, these days, are increasingly known as  the Homes of Timber Ridge, The Villas at Pine Creek, but that back then were aimless and empty woods filled with purposeless kids in search of something, anything to do.

Let me put it another way. In every town or city that you might ever live in or visit, there are streets between neighborhoods, forgotten streets that city planners have lost track of, that neighborhood associations use as borders, that anxious commuters use as shortcuts as they race home. There are houses on those streets, houses that when you drive past them you at most glance in their direction. But mostly you forget them. Dark houses, with many objects in the front yard.

When I was growing up, those are the houses where I played.  Those are the houses where, later, I got drunk.

Those are the houses that Raymond Carver writes about. And that William Eggleston photographs.

Now, though, I’m a parent.  A husband.  A legitimate member of the business community.  My neighbors, they see me, see me mowing the lawn or see me taking out my recyclables, and they think I’m as normal as they are. Because nothing establishes normalcy and legitimacy like taking out the recyclables. Low fat milk cartons.  A container marked organic chicken. I’ve spent a lot of time creating this impression. I work hard at this.

And then I’ll see Eggleston’s photos. And I’ll know it’s all a lie.

I like to write about lies. Shimmer is about a lie. Not just the literal lie. There’s a deeper lie. Shimmer is a seemingly bright and well-lit book about companies and computers and the highly educated people who run such corporations. Except that there is a darkness in Shimmer, a darkness beyond the lie on which the company is built or in the deception carried out against friends.

There is the darkness of addiction, of a hidden, secret life not exposed to anyone else.

Eggleston’s photos seem to find those sorts of secrets. The dark secrets of people. The dark history of a place. The dark meaning of an object. A thing.

I first saw one of Eggleston’s photos on the wall of a restaurant in Memphis, which made me go find a book of his, The Guide. This was ten or more years ago now and they’re photos taken in the South and I didn’t grow up in the South but that doesn’t matter. That lack of geographic and historical connection only makes it better for me. Makes the disburbance worse. Because, again, these are photos of the people I grew up with. The homes I wandered through and the cars I rode in and the places where I spent all my time.

There’s a certain cloudiness about my looking at a book of photos by William Eggleston. The cloudiness of knowing, personally, the person whose work you are viewing or reading or to which you are listening. It’s not that I know Eggleston. Instead it’s the knowing of connection, of incidental connection.

For instance: I bought Paris at Square Books in Oxford, a beautiful bookstore I’d ended up in after a small event for my book, a reading at a book club in Como, Mississippi, a tiny farming town in Mississippi where I’d been invited to talk about my book to a book club of truly interesting and different and intelligent and, especially, thoughtful people, such deeply thoughtful people.

Which happens in Mississippi more often than you can ever imagine if you’ve never spent time in Mississippi. I’ve lived in New York and Connecticut and I grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and Juneau, Alaska, and in those places a place like Mississippi or Memphis is as foreign as Paris. More foreign, maybe, because people there know they don’t have any experience with Paris, but think they know Mississippi, or Memphis.

But they don’t.

And so I happened to be in Oxford for food and wine after reading in Como and I happened to meet someone I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise met, Lyn Roberts of Square Books, and it was good to meet her, for reasons practical and impractical, and things like that seem likely to happen in Mississippi and Memphis and the South, all of which is many thousands of miles from where I grew up and where I thought I’d live.

And so besides meeting Lyn Roberts and thanking her for featuring my book in the Square Books newsletter and on their shelves and thanking her for inviting me, right then, to be on Thacker Mountain Radio, I also saw Paris, Eggleston’s book of photographs, there in Square Books and I bought it.  Which is the incidental connection of being in that place when they happened to have the book at the counter when I was talking to someone I wouldn’t have talked to any other time. And it’s the incidental connection of my knowing a few things about Eggleston.

I know his son, tangentially and briefly. We went to a Radiohead concert in 2003. I got too drunk there, because I love Radiohead and because I’d recently gotten divorced and seeing Radiohead with him and his cousin was a way to escape, a beautiful wonderful way to escape.

I know Eggleston’s nephew, Paul, a friend of mine who I like very much and who worked with me at a company that was, in many ways, the inspiration for this book, Shimmer, and who is one of those genuine people you meet in your life. Genuinely nice. Genuinely smart. Genuinely different.

I know Eggleston is a drinker. It doesn’t take a lot to know this. It’d be hard to read something that’s been written about him, even harder to live in Memphis, and not know that Eggleston’s a drinker. A drunk. An alcoholic, though how can you label a someone that way? How can you diminish a person so simply? I knew and know alcoholics. I always have. I grew up in a city of alcoholics and a family of alcoholics so for me to say this is not a simple thing, not a dismissive thing. It’s only a factual thing. In the way that Eggleston’s photos are factual, maybe.

That is a photo of a restaurant window. That is a photo of a puddle in the rain. That is a man who drinks too much. But it is all so much more. I know another thing about Eggleston: That David Byrne, the musician, likes Eggleston’s work.

I have liked David Byrne since the first moment I heard one of his songs, Crosseyed and Painless or The Great Curve, I don’t remember which and maybe it was both, I was certainly drinking when I heard it, but that was one of those moments, the moment of hearing one song after the other while listening to Remain in Light with a friend of mine who understood there was a world beyond Tacoma where he and I lived then. Beyond the paper boxes and dirty parks and littered forgotten homes on dark streets you drive on but do not notice.

A friend who listened to David Byrne and Brian Eno, not AC/DC. Not Def Leppard. Not Knight Rider.

And so he was a friend who helped open me to a world where I could listen to other kinds of music and live in other kinds of places and enjoy other kinds of art. Like William Eggleston’s photos. Photos that are painful and haunted and beautiful and possessed by demons, really. My demons, obviously, which break free when I look at some photo of a street corner, a home, a simple stack of chairs.

Or maybe they are demons within the photos themselves.


In truth, I think I hope that the photos have demons. I think anyone who writes − and maybe it’s true of photographers and maybe it’s true of musicians − I think we do what we do because of the demons. The dark memories. The empty moments. The embodiment of moments we spend so much time trying to forget. Eggleston’s photos have always reminded me of Tacoma, where I grew up and which is the place I fled.

I think that Eggleston’s photos − of Mississippi or of Memphis or of Paris − they remind me of Tacoma − your Tacoma, my Tacoma, anyone’s Tacoma, anyone’s place that they cannot really ever flee. It’s hard for me to look at one of his photos and not picture him, William Eggleston, there, in that town or on that street or in that building taking a photo. They are photos removed from the place they capture and yet they are photos that could come only from Eggleston, who was there, taking the picture. Holding the camera. You can see him. Feel him. Know that he is there.

Eggleston there in his photos. But unseen on the page. Me there in the book.  But unmentioned in the writing. The producer there in the song.  But unheard in the music. There’s a last point to make about Eggleston’s book of Paris photographs, which is this: It’s the first book in which I’ve seen Eggleston’s drawings.

They are simple, abstract drawings interspersed between the photos. At least I think they are drawings. They may be drawings, or oil paintings, or water colors. I’m not sure. And I don’t really care. In the same way I don’t understand the mechanics of music I like, the notes or the key or something as simple as the beat. Those are technicalities I don’t understand.

Because all I really care about is how the music sounds.

Or how the drawings look. How they feel in your hands. And how they make you feel, how they leave you unable to swallow and you can’t turn the page yet and you lose yourself to looking. Lose yourself staring.

Lose yourself to your demons.

Is it that in a photograph − a medium of art that almost anyone can confuse, rightly, with a tool of the family vacation − is it that in looking at a photo we inevitably inject ourselves into the scene? Isn’t that what every photo in a scrapbook or on Facebook or on Twitpic or on your desk at work or on your bathroom wall, isn’t that what each of those photos asks us to do? Imagine us here. Imagine yourself here. Imagine how good it was.

Except, of course, that Eggleston’s photos are by no means always photos of moments that are good. In the same way that childhood is not just bliss. Or love is not just beautiful. Or the present is not just what is happening now. Which is why I look at these photos and I am disturbed, my sense of now and love and childhood altered. Affected. Knocked slightly askew. I like that, of course. Disturbing as it is. I like it.

I like it very much.
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