Looking Fast

by Michael Almereyda

The digital archive as Aleph, circulatory system, and communal trough.

"Looking Fast" was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the New York State Council on the Arts and the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston. All photographs by William Eggleston courtesy of the Eggleston Artistic Trust.

Unknown photographer, no date.

I was afraid that not a single thing on earth would ever again surprise me; I was afraid that never again would I be free of all I had seen. Happily, after a few sleepless nights, I was visited once more by oblivion.
                            —Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”

WHILE MAKING A DOCUMENTARY about William Eggleston, roughly seven years ago, I hit a point where it was necessary to decide how long to hold on his photographs. I didn’t want to zoom, pan, and crawl around inside the pictures—a clichéd approach routinely backed by portentous music. And yet I wanted the images to have an impact, to engage your eye, to be seen. After a fair bit of deliberation, the editor and I settled on a two-second quota for all photographs. That, to my surprise, was enough for the pictures to be taken in without seeming rushed—and without seeming to linger, to heavily hang there.

I thought of Gauguin’s complaint, in a letter to van Gogh: “You paint too fast!” And van Gogh’s response: “You look too fast!”

Eggleston himself will tell you that looking fast is a key part of what he does. He seldom deliberates before taking a photograph, and seldom takes more than one picture of a chosen subject. He makes an analogy between photography and playing the piano: Both, he says, can require speed and precision.

Then again, I’ve seen him slow down—to a point of lizard-like immobility—while staring into a book of photographs. When we started the documentary, in early 2000, I presented him with a relatively obscure Cartier-Bresson monograph, Mexican Notebooks, 1934–1964. The book had been on sale at the Strand and was not, in my memory, extraordinary. But Cartier-Bresson is one of Eggleston’s heroes, and he hadn’t seen this collection before. He found the pictures riveting. "What do you like about them?" I asked. He seemed almost too intent to speak but managed to say, with a tight voice, without looking up: “The compositions.”

In the editing room I felt vaguely guilty granting so little time to images that I knew could reward sustained attention. But I wanted to give the movie a conversational flow, a basic briskness. As something of a compensatory gesture, I included footage showing what might be considered the afterlife of Eggleston’s pictures—their increasingly dematerialized reduplication, beyond the fine-art print. I went with Eggleston to the photo collection of the Getty, where he reviewed color slides sheathed in plastic; I included shots of him projecting the slides on the wall of his hotel room, then showed him talking in a darkened Santa Monica lecture hall as the slides flashed across a screen—out of focus at first, then solidifying, then shuttling to make way for the next picture.

I was trying to get at the fluid, multifarious nature of contemporary image making and at a kind of unspoken spillover: how photographers are often, inescapably, swimming in their own imagery.

And I was haunted by a declaration by John Szarkowski, the magisterial curator who gave Eggleston his debut exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Writing in MoMA’s accompanying monograph, William Eggleston’s Guide, Szarkowski offhandedly allowed, “The world now contains more photographs than bricks, and they are, astonishingly, all different.”

Szarkowski, who died in 2007, was writing before digitized image archives were common and accessible. If he were alive to reconsider the sentence, he might be inclined to amend it: The world now contains more photographs than grains of sand…

William Eggleston, untitled, early 1980s.

WHEN I FIRST MET EGGLESTON, in 1991, and visited his home in Memphis, I was excited to look through piles of unframed photographs, refined prints and proofs, scattered around the place like last week’s newspapers. But in 1998, people close to the photographer began cataloguing his negatives and digitally scanning them, organizing the material into a virtual library. By the time my documentary was underway, just a couple years later, loosely stacked prints were no longer in evidence in Eggleston’s house, but I was able to review photographs taken during our shoot, and to see work from previous weeks and decades, clustered in digital folders on a laptop in the office of the Eggleston Artistic Trust. Winston Eggleston, Bill’s youngest son (and current administrator of the trust), showed me how to click on a folder and scroll through images arranged in grids, thumbnails, a seemingly infinite display of unknown Egglestons.

My first exposure to this was something like the dizzying moment in Borges’s “The Aleph,” when the narrator arranges himself on the floor of a dark cellar in Buenos Aires and sees…the Aleph.

An Aleph, you know, is a point in space containing all other points, a portal into swarming, simultaneous realities, a window into infinity.

I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies…

I circled back to the Eggleston Artistic Trust in 2009 to select images for a book of previously unpublished photographs. By that time, many solid citizens were living with Alephs in their cell phones. I was susceptible, at any rate, to the widespread illusion that you can do everything at once and in no time at all, and in that spirit I embarked on the book project, sponsored by Jack Woody, the wise man behind Twin Palms Publishers.

I made five trips to Memphis in the course of the year, clicking through approximately thirty-five thousand digitized scans. I worked weekdays, if you can call it work—bankers’ hours, to accommodate Winston’s schedule. After the first couple trips, I began to recognize what I was looking for, what kinds of pictures would interact with earlier choices. There was a gluttonous sense of overload, and an intermittent recklessness. It was like driving too fast on a long road trip—those blind spurts of speed. I rushed past amazing pictures in a fraction of a second.

William Eggleston, untitled (portrait of Winston Eggleston, Oxford, Mississippi), early 1980s.

The ongoing challenge—the rather blurry starting point for these notes—slants off from an unanswerable question: How does this accelerated access, this relatively new and all-encompassing liquefaction of imagery, affect our ability to actually look at things? How truly can we see the pictures flooding before our impatient eyes?

I’VE YET TO ENCOUNTER a photographer's work in an online archive that is more ambitious, more deeply stocked, than Duke University’s William Gedney: Photographs and Writings. The site assembles roughly five thousand images distilled from the life’s work of William Gedney (1932–1989), whose legacy is otherwise limited to a single fine book, What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (admirably edited by Margaret Sartor and Geoff Dyer—and out of print).

The Duke archive frames its inventory with an introductory paragraph that could be smuggled, with a few modifications, into Borges’s description of the churning contents of his Aleph. Subjects, we are told, include:

William Gedney, untitled, 1972.
cross country road trips; rural New York; Manhattan; Brooklyn; rural Kentucky; Hippies in San Francisco; composers; gay rallies and demonstrations; St. Joseph's School for the Deaf; India; England; Ireland; France; and a large number of nocturnal pictures.

Gedney’s biggest series—932 images—is the result of two trips to eastern Kentucky, in 1964 and 1972, when the photographer stayed at the home of Willie and Vivian Cornett and their twelve children. It’s coal-mining country, an arena for backwater rural scenes, where Gedney, a closeted gay man, captured tensions and beauties beyond the blunt socioeconomic facts. While hardly oblivious to those facts, Gedney’s work displays, above all, a profound observational gift, a cinematic sense of gesture and place. These are pictures of startling tenderness, pictures that seem created out of moments of raw trust. You see similar qualities of empathy, intimacy and formal precision in Helen Levitt’s photos of children, and those of Judith Joy Ross—and in very few others.

William Gedney, untitled, 1972.

As the material is largely unpublished, it’s possible to feel a continuous sense of discovery while navigating the Gedney site. It’s as if you’re both watching Gedney at work and unearthing buried treasure. Pictures can be conjured up instantaneously, and they glow. Is it reaching for rhetoric to say they resemble dreams and ghosts? We can acknowledge, at any rate, that they have the ability to haunt us.

All the same, these pictures, though scrupulously scanned, can only approximate the surface and presence of an original photograph. There’s no getting around a computer screen’s matrix texture, the finely stippled digitized dots. And it’s worth admitting that you can feel quickly lost or swamped while triple-clicking through virtual facsimiles of Gedney’s contact sheets, journal pages, and dummies for unpublished books. These riches, minimally curated, can seem as jumbled as the contents of an old desk. It’s something of a relief to google Gedney and find more than twenty-three thousand image results, a repetitive yield derived from the Duke site but liberated from Duke’s distracting blue-boxed logo and the clutter of prosaic captions. Even so, as you tap the thumbnails, encountering other incidental texts, blogged comments, and website designs of varying quality, you may find yourself wishing for something simpler, less clamorous, more focused and concrete—wishing, that is, for a new Gedney book.

And here my speculations hit a wall. Our online labyrinth can be navigated with unlimited freedom, but who can begin to make sense of it or, really, feel empowered or nourished by it? Parallels to Borges burn off when you admit, however comfortably, that you are sifting through a shared bin, lapping at a communal trough, just another voyeur—anonymous, prowling—among a few thousand or million others. The sense of untameable glut can become oppressive. Detachment slides into estrangement. You can’t look fast enough.

THE EXPERIENCE OF PAGING through a picture book is, on the other hand, bound and focused by the physicality of the book. You have an instant apprehension of the number of pages, you know the scope of the thing (it isn’t infinite), and you can develop a relationship with it as a companionable, tactile object—something designed to be touched, paged through, taken to bed. And in the case of a masterfully edited book of photographs, each picture is trusted to tell its own tale while registering as part of a larger story.

William van der Weyde, Man in the Electric Chair, ca. 1900. From Photodiscovery.

Two remarkable examples of such books: Photodiscovery (Abrams, 1980) and Century (Phaidon, 1999), both conceived and edited by Bruce Bernard, a photo editor of prominent English newspapers and magazines who died in 2000. (The Guardian’s obituary described him as “an alarming, angry, affectionate and singular man.”) Bernard made coffee-table books—Century is a particularly popular, anvil-size gift item—but it’s a mistake to consider them toothless displays of connoisseurship. Each book, in its own distinctly ambitious way, is a chronicle, a record of human experience, a treatise on seeing, and a cry of conscience. In Century, a collection of more than a thousand images, Bernard presents a view of history as a storm, a succession of calamities and crowds, punctuated by stray moments of intimacy, calm, and grace. As in Photodiscovery, the curatorial layering has a democratic range and reach, juxtaposing pictures by anonymous photographers alongside iconic masterworks. Both books are haystacks bristling with needles. It would be interesting, to put it mildly, if something equivalent were attempted online.

WILLIAM EGGLESTON GAVE HIS BLESSING to my book project without playing a direct role in the editing. He may be the least nostalgic person I know, truly plugged into the present, an attitude extending to the consideration of his own work. But I’d catch up with him during my Memphis visits, mostly at night, and the conversation would inevitably touch on his distant subjects. I’d ask, for instance, about Lash LaRue, featured player in B westerns throughout the ’40s and ’50s, deceased in 1996.

“If you want a picture where he’s cracking the whip,” Eggleston said, “it’s up in the Peabody Hotel, in the ballroom up top called the Sky Wing. I printed one and he signed it: ‘One more time!’ Cracking the whip. A great person to be around.”

I’ve uncovered this quote from my own chaotic records. I realize I never made it to the Sky Wing, and never located the picture in the brimming laptop in Winston’s office. I hereby entrust this tip to the next person who takes time out to plunge into this vast pool, and I offer it with the hope that contemporary technology will soon provide us with an even more fluid and flexible means of viewing images online, whereby pictures can lead in an interactive flash to multiple texts, quotes, counterarguments, commentaries, video clips, music, and other resources—a kind of forum in which readers can participate in a conversation that’s open and focused, allusive and searching, repeatable and revisable. It’s something to aspire to, I think, as we make our way—too briefly, if not too quickly—along this narrow strip separating the present moment from infinity.