William Eggleston is the Elvis Presley of American photography. A rock star.
Because of it, it's turned out to be the perfect week for us here to concentrate on creativity and the creative sparks that are as much a part of our city as the Mississippi River.
Ever iconoclastic and ever talented, Mr. Eggleston was honored earlier this week to open an exhibition of his work – Democratic Camera Photographs and Video: 1961-2008 - at the Whitney Museum of American Art that will run until January 25, 2009. The New York retrospective has already garnered rave reviews, and if you ever doubt the creative impact of this river town on the world, just consider that in the past two weeks, Mr. Eggleston has been featured in 15 major publications, including New Yorker, WWD, New York, Style, The New York Observer, The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, W, Artforum, Time and more.
Not bad for a Southern boy who just happened to revolutionize the world of photography.
Don't Take Our Word For It
And if you suspect that we are doing little more than engaging in boosterism, consider the way that the prestigious Whitney Museum described our fellow Memphian:
"One of the most influential photographers of the last half-century, William Eggleston has defined the history of color photography. This exhibition is the artist's first retrospective in the United States and includes both his color and black-and-white photographs as well as Stranded in Canton, the artist's video work from the early 1970s. The exhibition will travel throughout the United States as well as to the Haus der Kunst in Munich following its New York presentation."
In other words, if there is a week to turn up the volume on a creative movement for our city, this is it. With Mr. Eggleston as the North Star, surely we can show enough courage for the creative sparks that inspire this city to join together and start a fire that torches the old ways of thinking, the comfortable mediocrity and the unimaginative approach to our challenges.
Yes, We Can
Of course, Memphis can't do such things, we always tell ourselves. Our problems are too deep, our city too divided, our governments two deep, our poverty too grinding and our dreams just out of reach. We've been saying it for 40 years, and in that time, cities that had no more compelling reasons than we did have turned their urban areas around, attracting talent, rewarding creativity, honoring innovation and transforming the status quo. In the four decades that we have given ourselves excuses for inaction, we could have done the same. But rather than be frustrated over the wasted time, let's admit that things have to change and that change can come from no better place than from the change agents – our creatives.
In fact, Mr. Eggleston reminds us how. In the same 40 years that we ran in place, he changed the world of contemporary photography. He experimented, he didn't always succeed but he never lost faith. It's a great example for our entire city, because we need to experiment, we need to be willing to fail but we need to remain faithful to the cause of a creating a competitive city.
If we need inspiration, we should just remember Mr. Eggleston. One of his photographs was on the front page of Friday's New York Time, something normally a sign of an obituary inside. But the best thing about all this major media coverage is that Memphis and William Eggleston are synonymous in every article, adding another layer to Mythic Memphis and enriching the allure that continues to intrigue so many people around the world who have never set foot in our city.
Upon the return of the Eggleston family to Memphis, the photographer's proud daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Eggleston of the UrbanArt Commission said: "In New York last week, we were around so many influential people in the art world and they had so many questions about Memphis. People around the country are fascinated with the Memphis mystique. They kept saying they want to experience it."
Of course, they'll come because they want to see where Mr. Eggleston took his photographs. Ironically, too few people in our city even know who he is, and it seems to us that if we can annually get excited and devote resources to Conservation Through Art, surely we can take the time to pay tribute to a creative giant in our midst. We have such a sad habit in Memphis of allowing people to live their whole lives without expressing in a civic way what they mean to us – musicians and artists in particular – and it would be such a welcome change if we could change our ways.
That's one of the things that we think our pet cause, the Memphis Creative Coalition should do – an Honor Roll of Memphis Giants of Creativity. It could have annual inductions, a citywide celebration of the importance of creative people and a reminder that there are young creatives who need our support and help as they begin their careers.
A few years ago, someone asked us what the motivation for our blog was, and we quoted Mr. Eggleston. It's one of our favorite quotes: "I am at war on the obvious." That should be our city's motto.