Monday, February 28, 2011

William Eggleston Photos at the BMA

Pop Goes the Camera

I highly recommend the Baltimore Museum of Art 's current featured exhibition, Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960, which uses over 200 "provocative and compelling images" by more than 60 professional shutter bugs to showcase photography's development since 1960. Having recently rewatched Michael Powell and Leo Marks' cult film masterpiece Peeping Tom (1960), I was in the mood for some foto finish fetishism and wasn't disappointed by the "views" on offer at the BMA.

But the highlight for me was seeing the works by William Eggleston, a photographer widely credited with securing recognition for color photography as a "legitimate" artistic medium to display in art galleries. I had accidentally discovered him years ago through the wonder of rock and roll. Specifically, Big Star's Radio City (1974) album - whose cover photo was taken by their fellow Memphis, TN-native Eggleston.

Radio City's lightbulb cover enlightened me

The iconic Radio City above has been referenced by other rockers besides Big Star, such as on Tommy Keene's Isolation Party (1998) and Vampire Weekend's eponymous first album.

Isolation Party, 1998

Vampire Weekend, 2008

Eggleston had a close relationship with Big Star and was friends with Alex Chilton's parents long before he started snapping pics of the band. He was also the cousin of Lesa Aldridge, who dated Alex Chilton and - along with Holly Aldridge, who was dating drummer Jody Stephens - was one of the "Sister Lovers" who inspired Chilton's cult album Big Star Third/Sister Lovers (recorded 1974, released 1978). Fittingly, Eggleston even played some piano during the Third/Sister Lovers sessions. The relationship continued through Chilton's solo years and even the 1993 Big Star live "reunion" album Columbia.

Eggleston's cover for Alex Chilton's "Like Flies On Sherbet" (1979)

Eggleston's cover for Big Star's "Columbia" (1993)

And, yes, you can judge a book by its cover: Eggleston's tricycle photo appropriately adorns the cover of Rob Jovanovic's definitive Big Star biography, Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop (2005).

OK, so Eggleston's Radio City cover wasn't on display at the BMA, nor were his other Big Star/Chilton snaps, but his neon Confederate flag cover for Primal Scream's Give Out But Don't Give Up (1994) album was.

Primal Scream's "Give Out But Don't Give Up," 1994

Primal Scream were huge Eggleston fans and went on to use him for subsequent covers, such as Country Girl (2006) and Dolls (2006).

Spoon's "Transference," 2010

Other rockers who who've used Eggleston covers include Jimmy Eat World (Bleed American, 2001), Derek Trucks Band (Soul Serenade, 2003), Spoon (Transference, 2010), Silver Jews (Tanglewood Numbers, 2005), David Byrne, Joanna Newsom and Cat Power, who shot a video at Eggleston's home.

Eggleston's led an interesting life - besides the pop music connection, he was involved in Warhol's Factory circle, as well, having a long relationship with Factory "superstar" Viva. In 2005, Michael Almereyda directed a documentary about him called William Eggleston in the Real World, which I must track down one of these days.

So remember pop music fans, that record you hold in your hands may not just be a great album, it's a legitimate piece of gallery art as well!

Related Links:
William Eggleston (Official Site)
"William Eggleston's (Album Cover) Guide" (Blake Edwards)
"Album Covers Referencing Big Star's Radio City" (Accelerated Decrepitude)
William Eggleston (Wikipedia)

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