William Eggleston, Mystagogue
by Bruce Wagner
Do we care for anything but mystery? And does anything matter more than its apprehension? During our days, we try so hard to find and hold it; at night, we find it then can’t remember. Though our nights and days begin, unfold and end, soaked in it, we want schedules, agendas, and appointments to give mystery dumb order. A birthday does that. A supermarket. A handgun. A phone book. A driver’s permit. These form the diary of our days. Bill Eggleston has spent a lifetime composing a different calendar, and in that sense, each of his photographs is a numbered day—our days are numbered—and together, they make a wall calendar of mystery that might hang in the very garages of Mr. Eggleston, in a natty undertaker’s suit, might stumble upon midst his meanderings. We can speak of the nature and theory of photography, its philosophy, its formality and offhandedness, the random solemnity and theorem of arbitrary borders and cropped fields; we can even speak of the fabled, magical mundaneness of Mr. Eggleston’s cars—some bright, some husks—and merciless, merciless facades, his unapologetic faces and deadpan dogs, his bright-dark trees and monolithic, colored, geomantic vision (colors at once faded and vivid), urban and country. but what do these things tell us, collectively? These sharecropped fields, these flat, sacred landscapes? Are they sorrowful images? Are we already dead, looking at them? Is a radiator of itself a sad thing, sadder still when topped by artificial flowers? No: neither sad nor ironic but rather the thing Mr. Eggleston’s itinerant eye fell upon and snagged—there’s mystery in what is selected but that isn’t our concern—and he feels such tenderness toward those things, those transcendent characters, radiators and false flowers, colloquial signs and ghost cafes, gasoline and soda logos and startled foliage (there’s a tree in this calendar that a saint decamped from moments before it was photographed) beneath blue skies. There is more than mere utilitarian mystery in power lines and obsolescent vats. And there are people, too, neither said nor ironic—like everything captured by Mr. Eggleston’s expeditionary eye, like everything he sees, they are heartbreaking and indifferent then we are heartbreaking and indifferent, watching them. So we are left with a mirror, and a calendar that is a prayerbook, for a religion we will not join: mystery. We like to think ourselves practicing mystagogues, but we will not abide.
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Not long ago, the photographer was watching the sky at dusk. It was cloudy and there was no moon. A boy beside him asked, ‘Mr. Bill? Are there stars always out?’ How that moved him! The images in this 2 and 1/4, then, are those small stars. A calendar of psalms dedicated to mystery. They are sad and joyful and indifferent, and will not go away when daylight comes.
- Bruce Wagner