Earlier this year, Joan Didion released South and West, a new text based on her previously unreleased notebooks. The first half of its title refers to her travels through the Gulf states in 1970. This exploration began in Louisiana, but ultimately failed to yield a piece. South and West unites Didion’s interviews with local figures, overheard dialogue, newspaper clippings, memories, and observations. Despite her notebook’s fragmentation, Didion offers a powerful portrait of the American South: its preoccupation with the past, its airless heat, its pervasive sense of decay, its syrupy speed of life, and its intoxicating afternoon light.
This weekend, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art opens Troubled Waters, a series of photographs William Eggleston made during the same era Didion ventured into Dixie. Unlike the California chronicler, the master of colour and composition is one of the South’s native sons. In his Troubled Waters photographs — landscapes of rural and roadside life in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta — we see what Didion was driving at, even if she experienced difficulty defining it.
Troubled Waters is an object lesson in the formal qualities and subject matters that have made Eggleston’s work so revered and significant. In her introduction to The Democratic Forest (Eggleston’s 1989 masterwork that was recently exhibited in New York), Mississippi novelist Eudora Welty listed some of the photographer’s typical subjects. Among them: Dr. Pepper machines, discarded air-conditioners, torn posters, power poles and wires, one-way signs, parking meters, and palm trees. Eggleston elevates this mundane detritus to larger symbols of American life in stunning, saturated color.
The exhibition’s photographs feature similar everyday matter: trash, gas stations, wet driveways, jam-packed freezers, strings of lightbulbs, and empty living rooms. In one picture, a box full of mud-caked cans sits at the bank of a murky puddle. In another, a neon sign fashioned as a Confederate flag butts up against a palm tree, bathing the leaves in its blood red glow.
Eggleston disconnects these objects and scenes from specific locations, sites, or contexts. And, for the most part, the photographs don’t feature any people. But in Troubled Waters, we find melancholic beauty, loneliness, quotidian magic, and the decay that Didion describes with her X-ray clarity. The series is an enduring rumination on the South by one of its most vital artists.
‘William Eggleston: Troubled Waters’ is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art from 10 June – 26 October, 2017.